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.