In the Earth Movie Review
Written by Joel Harley
Released by Neon
Written and directed by Ben Wheatley
2021, 107 minutes, Rated R
Released on May 7th 2021 (USA)
Joel Fry as Martin Lowery
Reece Shearsmith as Zach
Haley Squires as Olivia Wendle
Ellora Torchia as Alma
How does one get a movie made during a pandemic? In an unprecedented time for the industry and the world, the entire landscape of it all has changed. From the still-delayed (Candyman, A Quiet Place Part II) to the hastily VODded (The Invisible Man, WW84, most big Disney releases), we’re rapidly running out of movies that were already in the can, pre-pandemic. Which is not to say that the entire industry has ground to a halt. Far from it. While Tom Cruise was screaming at crewmembers on a Mission Impossible, and Zack Snyder was assembling four hours of scraps to make his Justice League all over again, the indies were there, quietly getting the job done.
If anyone was suited to small-scale, Corona-safe genre filmmaking, it’d be Ben Wheatley. No stranger to low budgets and small casts, Wheatley’s Corona-era debut shows that Covid horror doesn’t have to be all Zoom calls and hastily repurposed zombies. Like the 2020 behemoth Host, it tells a story about a virus-stricken world without making it all about the virus. At the same time, it’s a story about isolation, and how it can make weirdos of us all.
Emerging from lockdown, scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) ventures deep into the woods on an equipment run for colleague Olivia Wendle (Haley Squires). He is accompanied by park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) – she's more prepared than the out-of-shape dimwit, but still unprepared for the magnitude of what they face in amongst the foliage. Namely, the nutty Zach (Reece Shearsmith), an eccentric hippy hiding out in the woods. After they are attacked in the woods and their shoes stolen, Zach takes them in, dressing Martin’s wounded foot and feeding them a drugged herbal tea.
Part Annihilation, part The Shining, this loopy sci-fi horror film blends its epilepsy-inducing visuals with sick violence and stomach-churning body horror. Those who struggle to stomach eyeball or foot trauma will have a hard time with In the Earth, which takes its already horrible gore gags and just keeps on making them worse and worse. After being battered and abused in Wheatley’s A Field in England, Shearsmith turns aggressor, and gives the film a great villain. From the axe to the beard and straggly hair, Shearsmith does a great Jack Torrance impression, making us wonder whether the Overlook Hotel might have had a room Number 9 too.
The deliberately obtuse storytelling attempts to cover up any cracks – inevitable, in a film which was written and directed in fifteen days. Like A Space Odyssey, Sunshine and Annihilation before it, the story eventually peters out, giving way to wacky psychedelia and narrative confusion. The non-ending makes sense tonally, but feels like a bit of a cop-out. At this stage, it'd be more surprising to see a cosmic horror film with a proper ending. Fry and Torchia do well as the hapless victims of the forest, but they too seem confused and lost, the straight men to Shearsmith and Squires’s Colonel Kurtz routine(s).
This won’t be to everyone’s taste, but Wheatley certainly has precedent for it, virus or no virus. While his rise to Hollywood blockbuster-dom is to be celebrated – I’m eager to see what he does with The Meg 2 – it’s reassuring to see him continue to make these smaller, very Ben Wheatley features in-between. It’s just a shame that it took a world-altering pandemic for that to happen.
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