Home Film ‘In the Earth’ Review – Pandemic-Inspired Cinema with Nuance | Sundance 2021

‘In the Earth’ Review – Pandemic-Inspired Cinema with Nuance | Sundance 2021

by Andrew J. Salazar
The silhoutte of a man holding an axe in the foggy forest as seen in the Sundance 2021 selection In the Earth, directed by Ben Wheatley.

For better or worse, pandemic-inspired cinema is on the rise. It was inevitable considering the vast effects COVID-19 had on the film industry. From what has been made so far, films like the Michael Bay-produced, distasteful schlock fest that is Songbird is what we get in the worst-case scenario. On the lighter side, we’ll get something humorous, but just as haphazardly put together, like Doug Liman’s Locked Down. More films are to come, yet the final results have failed to push for anything more than lackluster. Whether he intended to or not, British filmmaker Ben Wheatley (Free Fire) is next in line to deliver something worthwhile on this front with In the Earth. To much surprise, his new horror comes the closest to doing so, but that doesn’t save it from its fair share of headaches.

Shot under new health regulations last summer in a forest not far from London, In the Earth follows two researchers on what could be a dead end journey. An unknown virus has plagued the cities of the world, and this secluded forest is a new base for vital discovery. Clues as to how to not only sustain life, but better it, lie within the cracks of wood and stone. One noteworthy scientist set up camp and lost contact from deep inside, and our protagonists are to find her. This isn’t necessarily a rescue mission nor is it one of the highest importance, or so it seems at first. The isolated woods take a toll on the mind, and their warped perspectives are soon tested by Mother Earth herself. 

Wheatley’s film is bound to fall into the boxed stigma of “elevated horror.” A recent trend in the horror genre, films with timely and complex themes, highly-stylized motifs, and unconventional methods of fear are given this label. Though initially meant as a sign of praise, the term often carries highbrow negativity that boxes said films from other means of discussion, while disregarding the rest of the genre. In the Earth carries a lot of these traits, complete with the dreadful slow-burn atmosphere that many of us have come to expect from “elevated horror”, but you can’t help but feel that this blurs the greater picture. The film is full of tension, mesmerizing to look at, and backed by an incredible synth-driven score, but ironically like its leads, gets lost within its own chaos.

In the Earth attempts to balance themes of science and faith, and for a movie post-COVID, this could have gone a lot worse. Still, by the third act it becomes tiresome to balance these ideas thanks to an overall lack of coherency. It truly is a double-edged sword in this case. During the first half, Wheatley creates an engaging aura of mystery, laying down the mythology of the land and never giving you enough comfort to settle in. At this point, nothing is predictable and it benefits the film’s beautiful yet haunting imagery of the endless greenery. What’s been building up finally comes to a much-needed release, expressed through unprecedented visuals of psychedelic horror. But here it becomes clear where the director/writer loses his grip. 

In hindsight, you will understand how the rest of the film plays into his greater schemes. It just simply doesn’t help that vital information is introduced in the second half without any indication of an endgame. The mystery is still afoot, but when the payoff is meant to arrive soon and eventually does in a somewhat predictable way, it makes you second guess if it was all worth it. The change of pace adds to the tediousness of it all, making it more obvious as to how much steam is lost from a solid and intriguing beginning. The film turns into more of a juggling act with these heavy themes of nature and human life, and things get unsurprisingly lost in the end. Wheatley does eventually keep up with the shock and elements of psychedelic horror, but it’s not as effective when you’re unsure of how to piece it together. Not everything has to be explained, but you’d at least hope for a more coherent and smoothly paced lead up. 

For everything that In the Earth struggles with, credit is due where needed. The uncanny visuals and killer score are a must (expect to see comparisons to 2018’s Annihilation), but the overwhelming focus of this film will be, as previously mentioned, COVID-19. Wheatley refuses to dive into the specifics of his fictional virus, and he doesn’t need to. A fine case of showing vs. telling, every implication of the virus is clear in the way characters behave and interact in this world. The little that is expressed of the finer details is more than enough. As much as the film becomes a tedious juggling game, the real ideas we all toy with today under COVID-19 understandably play into the film’s themes. In the Earth is perhaps the first pandemic-inspired film to actually contain nuance – a real saving grace for something that can easily lose your attention by the end. For the creative muscles that Wheatley does stretch, however, this will surely find a niche audience over time. 

★ ★ ★ 1/2

In the Earth premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Check out the rest of our festival coverage here!

Follow Managing Editor Andrew J. Salazar on Twitter: @AndrewJ626

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