In light of everything that has happened in 2020, movies that take inspiration from these turbulent times are inevitable. In light of this, In the Earth represents a shift in the horror genre. While the genre has always been evolving to represent whatever fears have stemmed from current affairs, director Ben Wheatley takes it to a new level. In the Earth follows Dr. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry), who journeys to a research center in the Arboreal Forest, with park scout Alma (Ellora Torchia) serving as his guide. Lowery searches for this station amidst a deadly virus ravaging the world.
At this point, one can see the backdrop as vaguely familiar. Wheatley uses the setting of a virus to raise the paranoia in all of his characters. The way the characters speak about the circumstances could have well been a conversation someone had today. You can either take this as on the nose or as immersive. Either way, Wheatley does it well.
Speaking of Wheatley, his direction and style are as evident as ever. While he tries to go for a more abstract experience in this film, certain Wheatley traits can’t help but shine through. The violence and mundane reaction to said violence is still ever-present. While things can get confusing and visually jarring, there are some comedic moments involving body horror. It’s when his traditional directorial style comes forward that the film shines. However, when In the Earth experiments in its visual style, it falls short.
The cast Wheatley assembled for In the Earth reflects his style as well. Fry and Torchia play off each other well, and Torchia as Alma is the main standout. Wheatley has demonstrated his ability to have strong female characters, such as in Free Fire, and does it again here. Alma is thrust into extraordinary circumstances and always seems to overcome the odds. Meanwhile, Lowery sort of fades into the background and becomes an unimportant character as the film goes on. By the end, it’s almost as if he’s completely forgotten. It doesn’t bear well for the narrative of the story, either.
After a nighttime ambush that leaves them shoeless, the pair runs into Zach, a man living off the grid. It is in this section of uncertainty and paranoia that In the Earth showcases the best it has to offer in the horror department. Instead of resorting to body horror or jump scares, Wheatley uses the absence of information or understanding to confuse. This isn’t unlike what the early months of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic consisted of. Out in the forest, isolated from the world in the time of a deadly virus with an insane man, Alma and Lowery try to reason and survive while captured by him. Zach worships the forest, and the entity controlling it. He believes it demands sacrifice. The tension and fear (with some levity here and there) in these sequences balance out the odd third act.
Our two protagonists eventually escape from Zach. What follows is “classic mad man giving chase with an ax” horror trope. It is extremely tense and the way Wheatley frames this action makes it the most exhilarating part of the movie. While most of In the Earth is experimental, this one piece of the film makes for a great case for why some tropes never get old.
When Alma and Lowery reach the research station, they find unexplainable phenomena and the scientist heading it, Lowery’s former love interest. It’s here in the third act and in this set in the forest that In the Earth dips in quality. Wheatley goes for a much more experimental experience at the end of this. The phenomena that Zach is obsessed with communicates through odd sound waves. Mist in the air caused by the entity disorient. What follows is odd kaleidoscope visuals that hardly make any sense to the viewer. The ending of the film is very disorienting and by the credits, there are hardly any answers to what transpired. It’s a sort of lackluster ending to a film that had a strong build-up.
Overall, In the Earth starts off with a promising first two acts. Things are unsettling, the tension in the atmosphere is palpable, and the lines between myth and science begin to blur. The actors do their best with what they have and it is sometimes more than enough. However, the third act turns into an absolutely insane and trippy experience that leaves more questions than answers. Put into production during lockdown, it’s a creative effort that I respect. A film filled with paranoia and uncertainty that leaves things like that when it’s all over. In a film that tries to reflect our times, maybe that was the point after all. – Ernesto Valenzuela
In the Earth is still pending a wide release date. For continued Sundance 2021 Coverage keep an eye on our Twitter page and this site!