SUNDANCE21 REVIEW: In the Earth [2021]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 100 minutes
    Release Date: June 18th, 2021 (UK) / April 30th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Neon
    Director(s): Ben Wheatley
    Writer(s): Ben Wheatley

You worried she’s going to get you?

There’s a shared ambition during times like worldwide pandemics and it’s to find meaning in the chaos. We need to figure out cause and composition in order to create a solution, but there’s also a necessity for comprehension insofar as abetting the anxiety that inevitably rises from the moment’s uncertainty. Some of us go straight to the science as a result, (How bad is it? What can we do to stay safe? Who’s at a higher risk?), while others search their souls through religion, (Do we deserve this? Are we being separated into damned and saved?). The ways in which those two paths overlap is generally where humanity finds common ground. But as we see more and more today, zealots have risen to transform that overlap into weakness.

As writer/director Ben Wheatley explains, however, his latest film In the Earth is not specifically about COVID-19. Rather than a direct correlation pitting those ready to sacrifice comfort for the greater good against those deluded into believing they have nothing to worry about and thus are free from accountability when others are harmed, he wrote it as a cathartic exercise to get the emotions born from experiencing the turmoil of a complete lockdown out. The whole is thus built from that aforementioned overlap even while delivering a message through genre conventions that ultimately transcends it. Because while what’s happening is objectively nature’s doing, the ways we interpret that truth are infinite. Where then is the line between “talking” to nature for answers and listening as nature talks back?

Therein lies the central dynamic at its center. Olivia (Hayley Squires) is a scientist who has gone deep into a quarantined park to conduct experiments that may help to get the world back to normal. Zach (Reece Shearsmith) is a squatter living off that same land with a belief that he’s its protector. Science is thus pitted against faith. One seeks to provide the earth a voice through machinery as the other does the same via art (photography). One hopes to learn how to better understand while the other volunteers himself in worship to a higher power. Who is then more important? Humanity or nature? Is the disease forcing us into a fight for our survival or are we the disease being cleansed? Which side are you on?

The inherent problem is of course that there shouldn’t be any sides. It shouldn’t be about choosing one above the other. Rather than dictate superiority, we could conjure humility in the goal of coexistence. Rather than create Gods that supply us the power to be irrefutably correct, we could simply hold empathy and compassion for all living things as equal. But if the last few thousand years have taught us anything, humanity isn’t built for harmony. We yearn for strife if only to demand that we be at the top of the mountain. We therefore wage war against nature and we wage war against ourselves once victory grows stale. Our Gods become warped in our image rather than the opposite so that their creations become ours to destroy.

And when things don’t go our way, we create a monster. Wheatley has done so here for the park in the form of Parang Fegg—a fabricated folklorish creature used to scare children into falling in line. She’s a witch drawn with tree branches and a void ready to consume. She’s both light and sound in ways that can give life and take it away. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find strobing flashes and static amongst the trees as Olivia looks to make contact. The real and unreal become merged in a way that make us question sanity as well as possibility. Because maybe natural phenomena have manifested our fears or perhaps our fears have given shape to that phenomena. Some delusions do get proven right.

That’s not a job for Olivia or Zach, though. They are merely vessels standing in for those two directions. It’s up to Martin (Joel Fry) and Alma (Ellora Torchia) to decide. He’s here to help Olivia with her research and she is the park ranger tasked with bringing him to her camp. Theirs is a humorously awkward dynamic as complete strangers thrust together at a time when that’s a rarity due to the film’s own viral quarantines. Martin’s relationship with Olivia is cryptically shrouded in deflection, but Alma lets it go as the details don’t really matter where her job as guide is concerned. It’s only when they’re attacked that secrets can no longer be ignored. Wheatley turns things into survival horror with a filter of deranged mysticism.

This portion of the film isn’t where we end, however, as a conflict between the idolatry-driven violence and Olivia’s potentially pragmatic counterpoint is necessary to attempt closure. In the Earth‘s build-up is thus methodically paced as we first get to know Martin and Alma, experience their desperation in that life-or-death scenario, and finally process the information in relation to the notions of trust and faith yet to come. And since this project was written and produced during our pandemic, know that the budget is low. Its impact is thus born from performances and visuals rather than any elaborate sets or production design. Those who have thus missed Kill List and A Field in England-era Wheatley will be happy to know he’s very much crafted a cousin to both.

His third act is inevitably the wildest as a result thanks to the lines between Olivia’s ambitions and Zach’s beliefs blurring. Instead of explaining what transpires through one perspective at the detriment of the other, Wheatley writes from the middle in a way that allows them both to be correct at the same time. Façades come crashing down. Martin’s desire to hold fast to Olivia’s wants is tested as Alma’s mistrust in the entire ordeal increases. And we find our own interpretations in a fluid state of metamorphosis much like the imagery on-screen courtesy of Wheatley’s hallucinogenic editing and light juxtaposed against Clint Mansell‘s synth score (created in-part with the natural resonance of plants similar to Olivia’s experiment). Regardless of science or faith, nature is readying to speak.

courtesy of Neon

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