IN THE EARTH is another complex and mind-expanding film from the boundary-pushing genre master director of Down Terrace, Kill List, Sightseers, Free Fire, and A Field In England, Ben Wheatley. Wheatley is one of my favorite filmmakers and an exceptional artist. I have heard the detractors and I will have none of it. He’s one of the few directors who successfully managed to adapt J.G. Ballard, whose written work has largely been considered “unfilmable” for decades, and two of the other directors who have pulled off a similar feat are acknowledged masters David Cronenberg and Steven Spielberg. IN THE EARTH is pure phantasmagoric horror that creeps up on you. Don’t watch it under the influence or maybe you should, if you’re that brave. It’s no wonder that they chose that shot from the film as the only publicity photo. That’s the film coming for you.
IN THE EARTH was written, edited, and directed by Wheatley, produced by Andrew Starke, with production design, yes, there’s production design in the forest, by Felicity Hickson, costume design by Emma Fraser, startling and gruesome special prosthetic effects by the fantastic Dan Martin, and a score by Clint Mansell that used plants to make the synthesized sounds. The film stars Joel Fry (Dr. Martin Lowery), Ellora Torchia (Alma), Hayley Squires (Dr. Olivia Wendle), and, holy cow, Reece Shearsmith (Zach).
This film was made during the lockdown in 2020 set during an unspecified pandemic that has caused humans to be locked down in their homes while people in the crowded cities have not been so fortunate. Unlike our current COVID-19 situation, this disease is not something that scientists have been able to quantify which presents a large problem. Scientific stations have been set up in The Arboreal Forest to desperately try to come up with a solution to stop the disease and save humanity. Dr. Martin Lowery and a park ranger Alma leave to get to the test site ATU327A where Dr. Olivia Wendle is conducting experiments. A previous attempt to reach the test site failed and the people never returned. This new expedition is necessary because Wendle has stopped communicating with the scientific hub. Something is wrong, but until Lowery and Alma enter the forest, they have no idea how wrong things actually are.
This film is squarely in the tradition of British science fiction and horror, specifically the Hammer Film productions and BBC television series “Quatermass”, written by Nigel Kneale, where the heroes and anti-heroes were frequently scientists dealing with a deadly plague or insidious invasion from space. Where IN THE EARTH deviates from the tradition is in Wheatley’s hallucinogenic imagery and sonic touches and the brutality and insanity from film’s folk horror elements.
While there is a certain amount of explication at a certain point, what is going on is mostly left up to the viewer. That’s where the mind expansion comes in for those who are wondering. Wendle’s hypothesis is that mycorrhizae, or the fungi that have a symbiotic relationship with plants, can be communicated with and may hold the key to the mystery of the pandemic and its solution. That the forest itself is a sentient being or a group of symbiotically connected sentience that may be angry with us. This is the scientific side of the folk legends in a book that is used by more than one character to try and appease the anger of Nature. Going back to “Quatermass” and adding the subgenre of Nature Runs Amok, IN THE EARTH conjures a deadly opponent to humanity in Nature itself that might only be trying to defend itself from us.
A sentience that lives in harmony rather than our constant state of anger and mistrust with everything, including ourselves. It’s a real theory, by the way, Hormonal sentience and theories that trees communicate and cooperate with each other. It’s a horror film that is based on scientific theory and a love of and respect for nature. Viral epidemics frequently come from a zoonotic source. Why not plants?
The one common denominator is that the most dangerous creatures are not the fungi or the trees in the forest, but human beings who cannot be trusted and who largely refuse to cooperate with their own kind. The humans who are willing to sacrifice and kill their own kind. While I consider crunching some granola, I will say also that there is a majesty and awe striking power to the forest. Like all the forces of Nature, which are mostly placid, those forces could crush us at any time that they chose to. You have only to look at our current calamity to understand how powerless we really are before the Earth itself, especially when we refuse to cooperate with each other to save our species.
This is why I believe IN THE EARTH is a superlative treatise on the COVID-19 pandemic. It throws our ignorance and warlike communal self in sharp relief against the majestic silence of the forest. Plantlife was here before us and will likely outlive us. Perhaps if we could finally learn to live in harmony with ourselves, we might stand a better chance of survival. We cannot live without the Earth and the plants that arise from it. We need them more than they need us.
IN THE EARTH has great re-watch potential and invites the viewers’ minds to open rather than contract. I would love to see it on a big screen with an extremely loud sound system with other film fanatics screaming in terror. The film also has a fount of humor in unexpected places. Like so many others among my favorite filmmakers, Ben Wheatley is very funny and, even in his seriousness about his films, he never forgets to take the piss out of all of us. I hope we survive to see the day when we can all watch films like IN THE EARTH in the theatre again. For now, I’m ready to hit the drive-through and learn the folk horror magic of Wheatley’s film and imagination again anytime.
IN THE EARTH had its world premiere on January 29 at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.