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{Sundance Film Festival} In The Earth – First Look Review

Ben Wheatley’s latest In The Earth is a sensorial overwhelming sci-fi horror stemming from a familiar premise. As the world is fighting off a deadly virus by relying on science and nature, people are wondering if they could truly trust one another. Too soon? Well, maybe.

Hailed as a Covid-inspired movie, In The Earth defies all expectations of what a pandemic movie could possibly feel like. It starts off with Dr. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) embarking on a mission in a facility in the Arboreal Forest. Together with park guide Alma (Ellora Torchia,) Martin is eager to reach an area crucial for his botanical research. Attacked while they’re camping for the night, the two are rescued by a mysterious man, Zach (Reece Shearsmith). But this loner isn’t who he says he is. Despite his nice persona, he harbors a dark secret linked to a local folk legend, known as Parnag Fegg.

In The Earth Is More Than A Pandemic Movie

Zach’s blind faith in an unidentified creature in the woods has echoes of those discredited yet dangerous conspiracy theories à la QAnon. It’s science vs. culty beliefs at play here. This is a dichotomy that has been around for centuries. One whose lines seem to get blurrier as individuals’ notions of truth and fiction are being tested by unprecedented circumstances.

Shot during the pandemic, In The Earth is very different from Wheatley’s more recent works, his high-on-aesthetics thrillers and action movies such as High-Rise and Free Fire and the stylish adaptation of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. 

Premiered at Sundance, this is a stripped-down, darkly funny survival story with disturbing incursions into hyper-violence and psychedelia. Although it plays on relatable, humorous lockdown tropes, In The Earth never establishes or limits itself as a pandemic movie. It’s a wild ride thriving in hallucinogenic visions, stroboscopic lights, and a pounding, synth-heavy score from Wheatley’s longtime collaborator, composer Clint Mansell. Mansell incorporated the sounds of actual plants into the score, attaching a piece of equipment for them to “talk” back. This imaginative practice reinforces the idea that nature is a source to use responsibly and embrace in times of trouble.

Nature can offer consolation from an indifferent world. The society existing outside the woods of In The Earth is a fractured one, just like the one people are contributing to creating at present. Wheatley crafts an introspective movie, forcing viewers to reconsider the relationships they entertain with others and the social responses triggered by casual acts of kindness — or violence.

Folk Meets Sci-fi Horror

With this pandemic experiment, the British director returns to his horror roots. It’s an uneven mix of science-fiction and folklore, looking back at his more psychological works, Kill List and A Field in England. In In The Earth, the woods aren’t the key to save humanity; the director isn’t interested in providing a response to bigger questions. These leafy corners are what people make of them. They hold a mirror up to the protagonists, amplifying the divides separating them. The trees are also what conceal a plethora of pagan symbols, following in the footsteps of British folk horror classics like The Wicker Man and its derivative homages, including Midsommar.

Similarly to these gory tales of folklore, In The Earth features genuinely gruesome moments designed to make you squeamish. The dynamics between torturer Zach and his victims Martin and Alma are humorous yet terrifying. We’re witnessing the end of civilization as we know it, where a clumsy amputation is preferable to a trip to the hospital, and yet we can’t divert our eyes. Not even when a visually orgiastic bomb explodes before our very eyes in the final act, introducing Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires,) a scientist Martin has been in touch with. This prompts kaleidoscopic visions of past and present, offering an unsettling look into the future if you dare. 

The closing, nocturnal number Wheatley puts in place makes you wish you could experience In The Earth in theatres and on the biggest of screens. It’s not a happy ending, but it makes audiences hope for better things once the longest of nights is over.