Directed by Ben Wheatley
Written by Ben Wheatley
Starring Joel Fry, Reece Shearsmith, Ellora Torchia, Hayley Squires
Set in a not too distant future, but far enough out from when humanity’s only option was sheltering in place, Ben Wheatley’s version of a pandemic movie ventures away from virtual living and sends us venturing out into the woods — with hand sanitizer in tow. In a growing COVID-era subgenre that will undoubtedly make its mark in film history, Wheatley’s secretly shot pandemic movie is the only one thus far to see past its own nose. It’s a signature film proving that Wheatley has been bubbling over with ideas, concepts about the mysterious power of nature, the madness of science and psychedelic violence that found a home wrapped inside of our real-life nightmare.
Almost tailor-made for the midnight section of this virtual version of the Sundance Film Festival, In the Earth begins with the familiar protocols we’ve come to live with day-to-day: social distancing, tracing, and compulsive hand washing. The only difference is we’re watching a remote team of scientists going through procedures as a new outsider, Dr. Martin Lowery (Fry) enters their closed off research center deep in the wilderness. With the help of a park scout named Alma (Torchia), the two embark on a hike to a remote test site that may now be derelict. They’re attacked and then rescued by Jake (Shearsmith), a mysterious hermit, who acts as a chaotic harbinger of things to come once their scientific mission begins to turn dangerous.
The “search for a cure” trope is just the diving board setup for Wheatley’s fascination with nature and mysticism to unfurl in weird and unexpected ways. The foundation that Lowery and the other doctors have built their lives around gives way to the occult when symbols from the Runic alphabet are introduced and a greater mystery starts to unfold. Nature’s wrath rears its head as well, dosing the human characters with some kind of homegrown psychotic.
The confidence behind the building blocks of science unravel, uncovering something greater and more awesome that breaks open their tiny world view. Similar to the hitmen in Wheatley’s 2011 film Kill List that find themselves trapped by a cult, the doctors in In the Earth quickly realize they’re in way over their heads. The acid-laced visuals that appear later on also feel like a sister sequence to the director’s trippy 17th-Century Civil War film A Field in England.
The film also serves as a commentary on how this new strain of pandemic PTSD that some of us are experiencing can turn dark in a horror setting, transforming the most well intentioned men into stark raving lunatics. But ultimately, the most lingering subtext is how nature will protect itself from us while we try valiantly to decode its greater mystery.
There’s almost too much of a good thing here, however, with so many ideas and imagery disseminating all at once. Wheatley probably could have made two separate films. This almost seems like the director’s own art rage experiment akin to Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!. Interestingly, In the Earth actually feels like classic sci-fi horror that should be taking place out in the deep reaches of space. That makes it all the more unnerving that it’s about a desperate mission taking place on this planet, not somewhere far off in a distant galaxy.
In the Earth is a signature film proving that Wheatley has been bubbling over with ideas, concepts about the mysterious power of nature, the madness of science and psychedelic violence that found a home wrapped inside of our real-life nightmare.