In The Earth

****

Reviewed by: Jeremy Mathews

Reece Shearsmith in In The Earth
"In the Earth begins as an unassuming creep-show about a scientist venturing out into a dangerous woods, but has far greater ambitions than a mere slasher or monster movie." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

In the Earth begins as an unassuming creep-show about a scientist venturing out into a dangerous woods, but has far greater ambitions than a mere slasher or monster movie. Writer/director Ben Wheatley has blended many sci-fi/horror tropes along with his own stylistic trademarks to make a mind-bending odyssey. We see ancient folklore that holds modern secrets, creepy woodsmen, mad scientists, psychedelic mushrooms and light shows, all mounting to a conclusion that assaults the senses.

The movie was the first new UK production to begin after the first Covid-19 lockdown, from a screenplay Wheatley wrote during the first few weeks of the drama. It is not directly about the pandemic, but real-life events clearly inspired it. An event in the not-so-distant past resulted in some sort of deadly breakout, which killed the protagonist Martin’s parents. Due to what seems to be a mix of eco-system protection and disease precautions, Martin had to quarantine for four months before venturing to the forest’s base centre, which is loaded with sanitation spots.

The film is rooted in the sci-fi premise of a connected eco-system that has its own thoughts and goals. Martin (Joel Fry) journeys out to the forest because his former colleague, Dr Olivia Wendell (Hayley Squires) has a research station out there. No one has heard from the doctor in months when Martin arrives with a small case of measurement equipment to find her and catch up on her progress. Park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) guides him on the two-day walk to the centre.

You’ve probably guessed that things don’t go quite as planned. Early on we hear about the forest’s special properties, and the village’s historic myths of a creature that, we’re told, perhaps existed to keep kids from wandering out alone. But the initial threat appears purely human — campers and squatters who ventured out to get away from the pandemic in the city. A night-time jumping and theft leaves the campers without shoes, which in turn leaves Martin with a nasty cut on his foot.

They meet a squatter named Zach (Reece Shearsmith) who offers them shoes. Part of what makes Zach and other characters so interesting is the series of unknown factors motivating their behaviour. It could be insanity, it could be their deeper knowledge and awareness. Regardless of that, their intentions could still be good or bad. Shearsmith’s portrayal is spot on, full of a lot of darkly comedic moments, including a fabulous debate with Martin and Alma about travel time to the hospital versus immediate-but-non-professional medical treatment.

Wheatley has always been a gifted filmmaker, though sometimes his ambitions don’t quite match the narrative thrust of his screenplays. Here, his writing and actors bring such life and intrigue to the characters that there’s a real urgency to get to the bottom of things. Wheatley also edited the film, and showcases his experimental edge in the finale with his most effective expressions of strobes, clouds and colours. It results in a melding of tone and style that’s wonderfully wild without being incoherent.

Reviewed on: 01 Feb 2021
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As a disastrous virus grips the planet, a scientist and a park scout venture deep into the forest for a routine equipment run. Through the night, their journey becomes a terrifying voyage through the heart of darkness as the forest comes to life around them.

Director: Ben Wheatley

Writer: Ben Wheatley

Starring: Hayley Squires, Joel Fry, Reece Shearsmith, Ellora Torchia, Mark Monero, Hayley Squires, Joel Fry, Reece Shearsmith, Ellora Torchia, Mark Monero

Year: 2021

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: UK

Festivals:

Sundance 2021

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