‘In the Earth:’ [Sundance 2021 Review]

Rating: 1.5/4

2020 was a long year for all of us. It was only a matter of time before the endless specter of the COVID pandemic was woven into a film with all the questions of human nature, selfishness, and our helplessness in the face of the natural world. UK director Ben Wheatley (Kill List, High-Rise) takes this to another level with In the Earth which was conceptualized, written, and filmed all within the confines of the 2020 quarantine lockdown. The result is a disappointing claustrophobic and hallucinatory delve into humanity and our fluctuating existence with nature and the microscopic, unseen entities of the earth that can so easily alter the world.

In the Earth follows scientist Martin (Joel Fry) and park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) on a field reconnaissance mission in the midst of the third wave of a COVID-esque viral pandemic. Their mission, to meet up with Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires) who has been AWOL in the forest for an unusual span of time for unknown reasons. It doesn’t take long for them to be accosted, knocked out, and removed of their shoes along with any means of calling for help. Lost and injured, they cling to a seemingly kind stranger, Zach (Reese Shearsmith) who is squatting deep in the forest, only leaving occasionally to walk to the nearby village for supplies. Trust and naivete are easily exploited human traits, and both Zach and the doctor have machinations in mind for the new wanderers in the forest. A being of light and sound lurks in the darkness, awash with hallucinogenic spores that no hazmat suit can keep out, and an eerie feeling that they are not the first unwilling participants in the attempt to understand and appease this being of the natural world, the same world responsible for ravaging humanity with death and disease.

It’s strange watching a film that takes place during something that hits uncomfortably close to home. The virus containment protocols both shown outright and discussed in passing give a surreal jolt throughout what is otherwise an extremely slow-burn experience. However, this also serves as a detriment to the film as a whole as between the tiptoeing around the pandemic angle and the vague supernatural nature entity slant, the film never really commits to one or the other. This makes the pandemic inclusion feel more like a “theme” grab to make people interested rather than something that actually needs to exist at all. There are a myriad of reasons why a scientist and park ranger may have to seek out a lost colleague in a remote woodland area, and a COVID-esque pandemic that only exists in passing is really not “necessary” to the narrative. Similarly, the supernatural bend is also underused and fairly shallow. We’re told cultish behavior was involved, but it’s very surface level beyond a few shock point scenes. We’re told the being communicates with light and sound but it feels more as an excuse for almost half an hour of EXTREME strobe effects that even gave me a horrible headache behind my eyes (I would strongly recommend anyone sensitive to strobing or prone to epilepsy NOT view this movie under any circumstances in fact, which is a whole issue altogether where your gimmick alienates a portion of your viewerbase) than as an actual plot-important creature/god/hallucination/nature itself. 

Fortunately the performances carry what is otherwise a shallow procedure. Shearsmith in particular fluctuates from gentle friendliness to sinister, calculated obsession with incredible ease and is by far the most interesting character to watch and think about overall. The visuals are also strong, utilizing the vastness and dark claustrophobia of a dense forest to the best of their abilities, especially when the lighting becomes more of an entity in the narrative and you’re left to wonder what or who may lurk just beyond the halo of the floodlights, waiting. 

However, I cannot stress enough that this film poses a tangible health-hazard, which for a tentative execution of an otherwise very interesting idea makes it hard to recommend on principle.

Images courtesy of Sundance Institute

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