Over the last several years, critics have listed Ben Wheatley’s name among several other prominent ‘elevated horror‘ directors. To date, Wheatley’s eclectic work includes the classic Kill List, the trippy A Field in England, and the criminally underseen High-Rise. When he’s in his comfort zone, Wheatley’s movies work best on an aesthetic level more than in terms of conventional storytelling. Recently, Wheatley attempted a more mainstream effort with Netflix’s Alfred Hitchcock remake, Rebecca. Wheatley’s filmmaking style seemed ill-suited, which makes his recently announced connection to The Meg sequel quite interesting. Yet his recent release, In The Earth, hews more closely to Wheatley’s wheelhouse. Not surprisingly, though reviews are positive, In The Earth has challenged critics.
As a virus plagues the planet, scientist Martin Lowery arrives at a remote British government outpost outside of a massive forest. Along with park guide Alma, Lowery ventures into the woods to find his missing ex-lover, Dr Olivia Wendle, a scientist studying the potential effects of fungus on crop growth. But the further Lowery and Alma get into the woods, the more apparent it becomes that there is a menacing presence watching over them.
In The Earth a Challenging, But Unsettling, Viewing Experience
Don’t go into In the Earth expecting coherent and tidy storytelling. Instead, Wheatley’s clearly positioned his latest release as something meant to be experienced. That is, In the Earth works largely as surreal horror. Despite its ambiguous, fluid narrative Wheatley creates a unique slow-burn that feels persistently unsettling. Wheatley excels at making the benign feel threatening. As In the Earth brings its main characters deeper into the woods, the discomforting atmosphere only intensifies. In the absence of jump scares, Wheatley relies on the quietly strange behaviour of one his characters and some haunting imagery. When the movie introduces visceral violence, it’s quick and shocking. In the Earth never lingers on the images. By the movie’s final act, Wheatley’s use of lighting and sound becomes transfixing, even if you may not understand what’s happening.
As In the Earth brings its main characters deeper into the woods, the discomforting atmosphere only intensifies.
As a story, In the Earth of is often impenetrable. Its ambiguous reference to a viral outbreak merely serves to move its characters into the dense woods. Wheatley slowly transitions from a scientific trip to study fungi to paganism with bits of Lovecraftian themes thrown in for good measure. Once the climax rolls around – a trippy montage that rivals 2001: A Space Odyssey’s ending – most viewers will have no clue what has transpired. Wheatley’s conclusion may quickly remind audiences of 2018’s Annihilation.
Into the Earth Sacrifices Characters, Logic, For Existential Themes
With its focus on atmosphere and existential questions, In the Earth never develops its characters. Much of this owes to Wheatley’s greater interest in semi-Lovecraftian stylings and dense musings on humanity’s relationship with nature. That is, In the Earth’s characters are there to experience – more conduits to the story than individuals with whom to identify. Regardless the performances themselves are good across the board. But less attention to the characters leaves the cast with some inconsistent material with which to work. Most notably, Joel Fry’s (Game of Thrones) Martin Lowery inspires little sympathy. Fry himself is good, but Martin’s a cowardly, whiny character who grows tedious.
That is, In the Earth’s characters are there to experience – more conduits to the story than individuals with whom to identify.
Though Reece Shearsmith’s ‘Zach’ occasionally menaces, Shearsmith often veers into jokey territory, which feels incongruent with the movie’s tone. Still Shearsmith facilities some of the movie’s more unnerving scenes. Perhaps owing to In the Earth’s late introduction of Dr Olivia Wendle, Hayley Squires’ performance feels flat. Again, this has little to do with Squires herself. Wheatley’s screenplay initially regulates Wendle to explaining the sudden shift to pagan rituals. Only Ellora Torchia’s ‘Alma’ connects with audiences as the one character who shows some commonsense amidst her increasingly bizarre situation.
In The Earth is Extremely Niche-Based Horror
Following the disappointing remake Rebecca, In The Earth feels more like a return to form for Ben Wheatley. Both the atmosphere and style feel like Kill List, but the results are much more challenging. Much of Wheatley’s signature slow-burn gets lost in the increasingly incomprehensible story. With an unlikeable protagonist and nearly impenetrable final 20 minutes, In The Earth may be more ‘art house’ than an A24 movie. If the results are always intriguing, In The Earth is going to appeal to a narrow audience.