Continuing to bestow the festival scene with his various genre offerings, writer/director Ben Wheatley holds a somewhat controversial presence with film fans. His inventive conceptual designs (Free Fire and High Rise) often tantalize with untapped potential. When it comes to the follow-through though, Wheatley leaves many divided over his ability to carry a narrative over the finish line. The director’s latest effort, the quarantine-driven, sci-fi horror vehicle In the Earth, boasts his trademark levels of inconsistency.
As the world searches for a cure to a disastrous virus, In the Earth follows a scientist (Joel Fry) and park scout (Ellora Torchia), who venture deep in the forest for a routine equipment run. When they discover a reclusive nomad (Reece Shearsmith), the two find themselves trapped into a mystical pack to uncover a dangerously untamed force.
To Wheatley’s credit, In the Earth represents the director’s most visually-assured work to date. Amidst the endless wave of trees and unkempt wildlife, Wheatley elicits some atmospheric dread from his isolated setting. However, it’s not until the film presents its horror-driven chaos that the director truly compels. A vibrant mixture of cloudy green and red tones convey an uneasy mist before wildly subversive imagery confronts the audience. In the Earth works best at its most visceral, often time intoxicating viewers with a nightmarish blend of reality and myth.
Once you look past the inventive veneer, Wheatley’s narrative collapses under its shallow pre-tenses. Wheatley’s pondering, dialogue-driven frames often confuse themselves for thoughtful meditation, with the dry regurgitations ultimately saying very little about its interesting subject matter. I love meditative nightmares of this elk, but much of In the Earth’s ponderous runtime misses those film’s distinct atmosphere and substantive.
One could see how the material could connect to our COVID-based dread in thoughtful manners, but Wheatley’s lack of deftness ensures few frames of thoughtful examinations. When the director’s horror-bend isn’t on full display, his narrative barely stays afloat amidst the flat characterization work. Stars Joel Fry and Ellora Torchia are left carrying a listless plot that gives them little in terms of agency or development.
Many will outwardly compare In the Earth to its atmospheric, sci-fi brethren (Annihilation has been a common point of reference). However, those well-constructed offerings employ a substantive streak that In the Earth is desperately missing from its DNA. Wheatley’s latest genre miss gets caught in his familiar favoring of style over substance.
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