Skip to main content

Sundance 2021 Review: 'In the Earth' gets back to our schizoid roots

Ben Wheatley's 'In the Earth' is a pandemic project that reaches its limitations, but gets eco-freaky with the best of 'em.

The voices reach out during 'In The Earth.'
(Image: © Neon)

Our Verdict

'In the Earth' is a skeleton crew production that gets back to Ben Wheatley's indie upbringing, but despite influences of smiling killers and cryptic voices, is lacking the signature zippiness or wonderment that Wheatley has often achieved.

For

  • 🪓 Rattles the senses.
  • 🪓 Minimalist but still thrilling in spurts.
  • 🪓 Environmental knowledge meets false worship.

Against

  • 🪓 Slow beginning.
  • 🪓 Throws itself to unchained boundaries.
  • 🪓 The drags make us wish for a shorter overall experience.

In the Earth is part of our Sundance 2021 coverage. You can find all of our reviews here.

Considering Ben Wheatley’s catalog, In the Earth logs near the bottom of my gun-to-head order. I guess that’s what happens when Ben Wheatley is one of your favorite modern directors? In the Earth is still a watchable mind-meld of cryptid folklore and labcoat smarts. It’s science fiction born from the pandemic age, about a quarantine-deadly virus, that’s considerably more interested in playing with maniacs outside. As a reaction to being locked away in isolation for months upon, timeline dependent, years? Wheatley’s psychotropic venture into Mother Nature’s best-laid trap in a marvelously independent production filmed in secret, but is in moderate need of running duration trims.

Dr. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) escapes an overpopulated metropolitan area to seek the Arboreal Forest test site ATU327A, run by a colleague, Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires). Ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) guides Martin through the dense woodland passages since GPS signals aren’t searchable. One night, as Martin and Alma slumber, they’re jumped by unknown assailants who smash their equipment and steal their footwear. Soon after, stranger Zach (Reece Shearsmith) crosses their path and offers hiking boots amongst other sheltered commodities. A good samaritan appearing out of the blue? As Martin and Alma quickly deduce, Zach’s mansion of a tarp shack might become their final resting place.

Viewing In the Earth as a blind waltz into the dewy mouth of wilderness madness, it’s an ambivalent yet surreal hiking experience. Martin and Alma’s quest is straightforward: reach Dr. Wendle. Their obstacles span severe appendage infections, LSD clouds puffed from aeration, and archaic rituals that involve standing rock totems with circular openings. Martin is a man of reason marching his way towards his superior. Still, it’s an arduous, droll observational trek that doesn’t incite maximum curiosity until Zach reveals his allegiance to Parnag Fegg, a fabled spirit who haunts the surrounding area. Then axes are swung, mythology enriches, and Wheatley doses us with earthly hallucinogens in the form of seizure-warning montages of bacteria, insects, fauna, and more. 

Something that might loop behind a Tomorrowland DJ’s set that’d attract festival drones like tripped-out moths to even more tripped-out flames.

Once Wheatley sheds a more generic thriller framework, In the Earth becomes this sensory overload in a deprivation chamber of strobe effects, blazing flare ignitions, and a return to soilborne roots from whence we’ve sprouted. It’s this stylish connection to what rumbles beneath tufts of grassy barriers that we take for granted in our skyline apartments. As mentioned before, there’s a fatal illness resembling COVID-19 plaguing Wheatley’s universe, and yet this isn’t a pandemic thriller. If anything, Clint Mansell’s ominous hum of a score that reverberates and pierces while rapid-fire visuals throw our minds into chaos is subliminal messaging à la The Wicker Man or Pagan ritualism indebted to elemental golems. It’s intimate, alluring, and yet tinges of found footage isolation that’s stranded many a cameraperson with undefined screeches and rustling brush as anxiety shredders.

What’s unexpected is Wheatley’s sinister cult tones when introducing Zach, complete with gory tidbits as Martin’s body is beaten, sliced, and undergoes off-the-grid operations. In t he Earth awak is still a watchable mind-meld of cryptid folklore and lab coat smarts. It’s science fiction born from the pandemic age, about a quarantine-deadly virus, that’s considerably more interested in playing with maniacs outside. As a reaction to being locked away in isolation for months upon, timeline dependent, years? Wheatley’s psychotropic venture into Mother Nature’s best-laid trap in a marvelously independent production filmed in secret, but is in moderate need of running duration trims.eatley abuses Martin is comically endearing, so here’s your pass.

Clock In The Woods around ninety(ish) minutes, and I’d show more enthusiasm. As presented, an incredulous cast of campers falls under the hypnosis of do-it-yourself existentialism and a pulsating rhythm that surges from the earth’s core but only after beginnings more ordinary by comparison. Probably by design, to achieve the sensation of slipping into a synthesized purgatory that stinks of mushroom toxins and stimulates fearful responses through photo-dump overloads of National Geographic clippings. It works, yet the ambivalence and ambiguity of Ben Wheatley’s “find your own meaning” finale will divide viewers between those who exit with a new appreciation of existence and those left directionless, seeking a navigation waypoint to answer what they, within, cannot.