Sundance 2021: “In the Earth” never fully blossoms

In the Earth In the Earth (Neon/Sundance Institute)

Ben Wheatley’s pandemic-shot sci-fi effort is a derivative and predictable trip through the fog despite a few choice moments.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.)

A few months ago, Ben Wheatley did what seems to be en vogue as of late: make a movie mid-pandemic. It was over 15 days in August 2020 when Wheatley shot his latest from his own script, and does this one tick a few of the usual boxes. Lethal virus outbreak? Check. Lethal virus that isn’t actually COVID-19 but clearly is? Check. A non-COVID-19 lethal virus that feels extraneous overall? Yep, and yet its predictability goes beyond that. In the Earth sees Wheatley aping Andrei Tarkovsky by taking liberally from Stalker, but it also sees him aping himself by rehashing A Field in England much more predictably.

It’s pretty clear stuff throughout. While the cities rage with illness, Dr. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) heads on a mission to a test site deep in the forest. After getting to a lodge closer to civilization, he makes the acquaintance of Alma (Ellora Torchia). Alma is a park ranger tasked to guide him, and right after an anonymous figure attacks them, they come across a nature-dweller named Zach (Reece Shearsmith). For whatever reason, they think he’s an all right guy to trust, but I forgot to mention that no one in this movie has even the most basic intuition, especially given their professions.

So instead of building up any real suspense, Wheatley dusts through some half-baked mythos. Zach has some odd beliefs—maybe they’re mystical, maybe even gnostic. In fact, these beliefs hold that something, somewhere in the vicinity affects people’s perceptions of their surroundings. It might even blur the line between science and reality. The script never fully develops any of this, though. Rather, it dips into some admittedly effective body horror and some really misplaced comic relief.

In the Earth sees Wheatley aping Andrei Tarkovsky by taking liberally from Stalker, but it also sees him aping himself by rehashing A Field in England much more predictably.

The problem isn’t the comic relief itself. It’s how sparsely and irregularly Wheatley uses it, almost like it’s a fallback on moments he doesn’t know how to dramatically approach. Granted, it works in parts. One choice moment uses it to deflate and exacerbate some pretty gnarly body horror, but this isn’t always the case.

It’s actually around the one-hour mark when things start to pick up. The trippy imagery and strobe effects ramp up, and Hayley Squires appears in a supporting role. Not only does she help ground the tone, but she helps smooth out the overall character of the film which, when just between Fry and Torchia’s parts, feels distractingly incomplete. The problem is that it’s just a few minutes until the script makes it so abundantly clear who everyone’s role is and what’s actually happening. Right when it starts to get good, every single twist becomes clear from a mile away.

It just never fully gels, or really feels full. In the Earth doesn’t look at its topics with a unique enough perspective, and the pandemic stuff feels like a put-on at most. Nick Gillespie’s DP work is pretty slick, though, and the score from Clint Mansell does pretty much all of the heavy lifting. It’s natural, synthy, and swishy. It’s just too bad the rest of the movie isn’t—and it’s too bad it’s this forgettable.

In the Earth played in the Premieres category of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and will be released by Neon.

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