Making Flesh What You Know is Right: In the Earth (2021) - Reviewed



There have been a few attempts to make pandemic films, with most of them taking the concept too literally. It feels redundant somehow to watch a film that is a direct mirror to current events especially when said event is still ongoing. That being said, it is inevitable that these few "plague years" as it were will affect the tone of art for years to come as it was a shared tragedy for the entire globe. 

Ben Wheatley's In the Earth (2021) is on the surface about an unnamed disease sweeping mankind and it feels like an adjacent version of our universe. Dr. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) has come to an outpost outside of a forest to gain access to a scientific research hub that lies deeper within. In order to traverse the forest safely he is joined by Alma (Ellora Torchia) a park ranger assigned to the outpost. Due to how thick the foliage is they have to travel to the research station by foot on an arduous two day journey. Following unfortunate circumstances they end up accosted and barefoot trekking towards their goal. They meet a mysterious man named Zach (Reece Shearsmith) who offers to help them. Can he be trusted?


In the Earth starts out as a run-of-the-mill outbreak type of film, but it slowly and steadily morphs into a tense thriller and then eventually into a surreal soft sci-fi philosophical piece. Genre-mixing can be tricky as one runs the risk of alienating people who expect one thing and get another. The tone shifting works well in this film thanks to the strong anchor performances by the two leads and in particular Joel Fry's pained performance. His character is someone who has been in isolation for months and is just now venturing out into the world again and he is having trouble adjusting to both the environment and other people. What makes In the Earth stand out from other pandemic era films, is that it addresses what might come after it's over and the fear and anxiety that will ensue when society has to go back to social interaction.

On a meta-level, this film was influenced by quarantine as the real world pandemic forced the director to work around it. The cast is small to reduce exposure. It takes place almost entirely outside which is considered safer than indoors. The shooting schedule was short. It is fascinating to consider these elements as one watches the film because it adds to the atmosphere.



The most intriguing element of In the Earth is the outstanding sound design employed and how it synchronizes with the visuals to create an unsettling mood. In the first half of the film the musical score, provided by Clint Mansell, is appropriately subdued, filled with haunting synth heavy melodies and soundscapes. Once the characters reach the research station, however, it switches from background music to diegetic drone noise that is created by Dr. Wendel, the scientist working there (played by Hayley Squires). Dr. Wendel uses speakers and lights she set up in the forest to "communicate" with a sentient force she believes lives there. There are extended sequences of flashing lights and deep bass tones that at times are hard to bear and it's a genius way to inflict what the characters are feeling onto the audience.

The third act dissolves into the type of transcendent psychedelic freakout that Ben Wheatley is known for and it will very likely estrange viewers who are looking for concrete closure. In the Earth is a beautiful meditation on isolation and the hope that can spring from coming together with both nature and each other after this is all over.

--Michelle Kisner