Director Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth is a COVID-infected call for humans to reintegrate themselves with nature through a combination of science and ancient magical rites. That’s a heavy load for any movie to carry, so it’s not a surprise that In the Earth stumbles under its own weight.
Scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) and park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) venture into the woods to reconnoiter with Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), who has not been heard from for weeks. It’s a two-day hike out to Wendle’s camp and almost immediately, Lowery and Alma discover that terrible things lurk in the forest.
Zach, played by a wild-haired and glowering Reece Shearsmith, takes Lowery and Alma hostage. After Zach enacts some Fulci-esque foot violence upon Lowery, he tells the hapless pair that an ancient entity lives in the wood, its spirit trapped inside of a standing stone. This entity demands praise and sacrifice. Neither of those things appeal to Lowery and Alma, who make their escape to Wendle’s camp.
Wendle is not only alive and well, but she has rigged up the forest with giant speakers and strobe lights. She believes that the forest interacts as a system that can be communicated with via elements of sound and light. Although this seems almost scientific, Wendle has gotten a lot of her ideas from the Malleus Maleficarum, an thick tome about witchcraft written in the 1400s.
With Zach prowling about in full-on wacko survivalist mode and Wendle attempting to marry science with pagan rituals, the divide between the arcane and the concrete begins to blur. Lowery and Alma are caught in the middle, which is where the terrifying truth of matters often lies. It is a given that the forest is alive, but could it also be sentient?
As with most of Wheatley’s work, story elements are hinted at rather than overtly shown. We know some kind of disease has consumed most of the world, certainly a mirror of the COVID-19 pandemic, although COVID is never explicitly mentioned. Hazmat suits and face masks abound during the first act and the viewer is treated to numerous scenes of disinfecting and hand sanitization.
One viewing of a Wheatley film is never enough to parse the mysteries presented, bring together the implied storylines or articulate any sort of full explanation. For anyone interested in doing those things, In the Earth demands to be seen more than twice. But one expects that from Wheatley, a master of bringing disparate influences onto the same canvas while leaving the audience to figure it all out. His films lend themselves to interpretation more so than other recent horror movies that bend themselves over backwards to make sure the viewer gets the point.
On the surface, In the Earth feels like a scholarly reinterpretation of M. Night Shyamalan’s why-do-the-plants-hate-us movie, The Happening. Nature is the main character in both films. While the plants in Shyamalan’s film appear to be actively plotting against humans, Wheatley’s forest demands that we trust it as we fear it.
Wheatley’s proclivity toward folk horror is on fully on display here, as well as his love of psychedelic imagery. In the Earth is filled with pulsating images and odd sounds, not all of which serve to push the story forward. The third act descends into a study of style over substance with an ending as abrupt as it is self-referential. It is left to the viewer to piece the events of the film together and make sense of it all. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but some audience members could find Wheatley’s style overly artsy and oblique.
It’s easy to like In the Earth for the differing philosophical viewpoints of its human characters but it is a difficult film to love. The movie is disjointed in places where full connectivity may have better served the story for clarity’s sake. Placing faith and science at odds to figure out how to get ourselves back to the garden is a fascinating idea. If only that core concept had not become muddled under the epilepsy-inducing editing, In the Earth could have been an incisive recruiting film for naturism and consolidating humans with their natural surroundings. As it stands, In the Earth is an uneasy combination of violence, hallucinatory imagery, and ecological mayhem that commits the same offense it warns the audience about: an inability to establish strong roots.