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In The Earth

***
2021

‘…front-loaded with notions which are not delivered in a final product that intrigues far more than it satisfies….’

Whatever happened to Ben Wheatley? The doyen of the London cognoscenti, Wheatley burst into cinema with the mordant Down Terrace, followed by the slick, shocking occult thriller Kill List, still his best work to date. But Wheatley’s work since then has been frustrating, if eventful; Sightseers and A Field in England felt like backwards-looking misfires, Free Fire was a tedious gangster romp, then his transition to big budgets via Netflix’s Rebecca delivered little on his early promise. But Wheatley is enough of an auteur for his work still to be an event, although his proposed helming of The Meg 2 may well put paid to that.

For the moment, we have In The Earth, a sci-fi horror thriller than Wheatley proudly announced was written in two weeks during lockdown. In The Earth certainly feels like it was written over a short period of time; the story is muddled and unclear, even if the jumping-off point is inspired. Joel Fry plays Martin Lowery, a scientist who arrives on a government mission to study crop efficiency in a forest outside Bristol. Lowery meets up with Alma (Ellora Torchia) who aims to be his guide, but the two are quickly captured by Zach (League of Gentlemen’s Reece Shearsmith) whose own experiments in the woods have led him to a rather dangerous form of psychosis.

In The Earth shares with the writings of Nigel Kneale an interest in the connection between pagan superstition and science; a key line relates to a virus which has attacked those who stayed behind in the cities, notably Lowrey’s parents. ’They trusted in the wrong branch of science’ says Zach, and figuring out which branch of science to trust is part of the dilemma that Lowrey and Alma must face. Unfortunately, all the ethical and philosophical choices suggested are quickly forgotten as In The Earth descends into the kind of psychedelic murk that hobbled A Field In England. Mushrooms eject a psychotropic substance that drives everyone crazy and all kinds of surgical instruments are gleefully misused.

After a gripping and ambitious first half hour, with references to sorcerers, sentient forests and all kind of imaginative ephemera, it’s dispiriting to report that Wheatley’s film dribbles to a halt in a mess of severed toes, strobes and screams. Wheatley is a director of great talent, but either he needs to find a decent writer attuned to his ideas or learn some discipline; In The Earth is front-loaded with notions which are not delivered in a final product that intrigues far more than it satisfies.

In The Earth previews June 17th and opens in cinema from June 18th 2021.

Thanks to Zoe Flower and Universal Pictures UK for advanced access to this title.

Comments

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  1. Didn’t see what was muddled about it. Very clear storyline. Pandemic background and then scientist (and a guide) goes into woods to find ex-lover and comes across an earth-lover of the worst kind. The only downfall was that once captured they were rather too British, without the zest for escape we have come to expect from this kind of picture. I found it surprisingly absorbing and the legendary aspects acceptable.

    • My guess is that it works better on the big screen, where that kind of kenetic approach is more effective. I just can’t see where there’s any pay-off for all these supernatural and science-y ideas; it’s just people hitting each other with axes towards the end, IMHO.

      • Well they are all mad, so I expected little else. I guessed that the wife would turn out to be cuckoo as well just trying the scientific rather than the artistic approach to deifying the god of the woods. A bit like Ammonite it played better in a cinema.

  2. I am intrigued by films shot against-the-odds — in this case, a COVID lockdown — to see what the filmmakers dreamed to the screen. I’ll go into this with a softer, critical hand, now that I have your Intel and that of the commenters.

    Thanks for this review. I wouldn’t have known of the film, otherwise. Which is the whole point our individual labors of love to film on the web; exposing lost oldies and obscure new ones.

    • Most people never make two good ones, but my patience is being sorely tested by this career path…

  3. I enjoyed In The Earth, but I agree it became more incoherent as it progressed and it desperately lacked discipline. It seems I was okay with it for longer than you – I enjoyed much of the Reece Shearsmith encounter, though it did get quite silly by then, more pantomime grotesque in contrast to the tone of the earlier sections.

    It struck me that it’s more of a pandemic quickie than anything substantial, and I could enjoy it on these terms. It’s a messy expression / extrapolation of these weird times. I doubt it’ll past the test of time, except as a curio when we look back at Covid and isolation. I almost wish it could vanlsh after life goes back to normal, so it remains just a hazy memory like I hope Covid will become.

    What did excite me was that it felt like the first in a while of Wheatley’s films to have the characteristics that make him an interesting (and maddening) director, even if it took a low-buget production with presumably low studio expectations to rediscover that. I hope he carries that on to his next films (although I have my doubts about The Meg sequel!).

    • I think we’re pretty much in the same boat. He’s a very talented director, and I fully agree that lo fi quickies are a good way for him to recapture that mojo. I did think the first 40 minutes were intriguing, and seemed tight at that point. But by the end, it feels like a script meeting about potential themes rather than a film realizing these ideas. It’s always about the next film with Wheatley, except the next film isn’t much cop. It wouldn’t be so frustrating if he wasn’t so talented, but this ends up a scribble.

    • It’s silly, if you can see the silliness through the relentless strobing. Nope is fair.

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