The Covid-19 pandemic has been hard on the entire world. 2020 and, so far, 2021 have been devastating economically but, most importantly, socially.
People are struggling everywhere to maintain their finances and their homes while a demon in virus form breathes its devilish fire on our planet.
I’d presume the new film “In the Earth” was borne of this time, even though writer/director Ben Wheatley has stated that it is not. The director wrote the film during the beginning of the UK lockdown so I would argue that his idea was indeed inspired by what we are all going through.
I usually cannot vibe with the films of Ben Wheatley. The filmmaker has a following but his work never grabbed me.
He certainly has a good knowledge of cinema and an obvious respect for the moody genre films of the seventies and eighties but, having seen every one of his films, my take is the director creates good ideas but then drains them of life and interest.
While his films are visually interesting and scored well, the ideas good (and Wheatley knows how to set up a story and a mood), the payoff just isn’t there.
“In the Earth” is an exception, but only for a while. It is light-years better than his 2020 retelling of “Rebecca” (one of the worst films, both for that year and for the filmmaker). In this one, the filmmaker has a tighter handle on his characters. This is not to say the film is perfect. After a rather interesting opening forty-five minutes, Wheatley’s film becomes maddeningly uneven, eventually petering out to a dead stop, all but negating the well-achieved first half.
The film finds its characters moving deep into the woods, trying to distance themselves from a deadly virus. Eventually, they will discover that there is no hiding from the wrath of a damaged and vengeful Mother Nature.
After the planet is beaten down by a virus, Dr. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry, in a fantastic performance) comes to a research facility embedded deep in the forest. The good doctor is on a mission to find his colleague Dr. Wendle (Hayley Squires), who has gone dark.
Upon arriving at the station where he will meet his travel companion (Park Ranger Alma, played by Ellora Torchia), Lowery sees a disturbing picture of a woman hanging on the wall and children’s drawings of the same woman. He is told she is a dark spirit of the woods called Parnag Fegg. Alma explains that it is just a story to scare the children to keep them in line and stop them wandering around in the woods. We assume Wheatley is setting something big up for his audience. A mistake.
Lowery and Alma set out into the forest on what will be a dangerous journey to find the missing doctor.
Enter Zach, a strange hermit who lives in the woods. While he comes to them as an angel of mercy, they soon find he has a darker purpose.
It is here where the film loses its way, turning into a garbled mess of folklore, science, and horror trope nonsense. Wheatley strives to entertain on a visceral level while making somewhat of an eco-statement but, as with all of his films, he can’t bring it all together.
Some things work in this film. Clint Mansell’s score is retro-synth goodness, Nick Gillespie’s cinematography paints a darkly ambient visual tone and the small cast performs well
It is Ben Wheatley who stumbles.
The filmmaker’s ideas are ambitious, but he doesn’t know what to do with them.
Genre fans will be pleased by a few scenes of practical gore effects and a couple moments of creepiness and audiences will get a thrill from many of the visuals but it all leads up to extraordinarily little substance.
It could be argued that Wheatley’s intention was to give viewers a visceral experience. If this is the case, perhaps the filmmaker should not have raised important issues of man’s dangerous meddling with nature.
To say something is “style over substance” is overused terminology, but the films of Ben Wheatley certainly fall under this. While an interesting filmmaker on a visual level, I wish he would take equal care with his screenplays, most importantly, his denouements.
“In the Earth” is a film that holds interest for a while but finally collapses under the weight of its own nothingness—frankly, a Ben Wheatley trademark.