In the Earth is unsettling in the best of ways, comfortable in its ability to subvert expectations while leaning into the unhinged elements of its story. While somewhat disjointed and unclear in its ultimate message, the film is sharp and makes good use of the forest as an ethereal, yet threatening, setting. Written and directed by Ben Wheatley, In the Earth showcases the extremities of human nature as the characters grapple with the mysteries of their surroundings. Infused with intensity and psychedelic mind trips, the film captivates with a story that is uneven, but conceptually fascinating and thoughtful.
Set in the midst of a pandemic, scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) arrives at a research facility to help find a cure after being quarantined for months. He and park scout Alma (Ellora Torchia) set off into the forest in a bid to also find Dr. Olivia Wendle Hayley Squires, who set off to do research and stopped sending communications back months prior. When Alma and Martin are kidnapped by Zach (Reece Shearsmith), a worshipper of the land spirit Parnag Fegg, things take a horrific and strange turn that results in a rather twisted story direction.
The film doesn’t have a firm stance on any of the arguments it presents. And yet, In the Earth still manages to put forth a roundabout message regarding humanity’s pitfalls about the environment and their penchant for destruction. As the scientists attempt to understand the forest around them, they fall into the trap of using the land for their own advantages regardless of the costs. It’s what makes the ending so mystifying and strangely thoughtful — who ends up where and how reveals a lot about the film’s psychology and asks the audience to question intent.
In the Earth is always on the verge of answers and, though it offers very little of that, the folds of ambiguity is where the story truly lives. Is the forest out to get the characters by trapping them inside or is it trying to send a message? Is Parnag Fegg the root of the aberrations or is it something (or someone) else? When discussing nature as a society, a hurricane or a massive snowstorm are construed as aggressive forces rather than acknowledging that nature has no allegiances; the environment is merely acting as part of a system. In the Earth allows the audience to ponder who and what the real problem is without being too obvious about it, all while maintaining its intrigue until the very last frame.
Wheatley combines hallucinatory images with the mysteries of mythology and the spiritual with the groundedness of nature. The science elaborated on by Olivia, the spiritual lore Zach gets lost in, and the intense scrutiny and skepticism of Alma coalesce and conflict, complementing and contrasting one another as the film evolves and more information is given. There’s so much to dissect and all of these elements make for a memorable, if uneven horror, with the film intent on leaving the audience with a striking visual and auditory experience that is as disconcerting as it is visceral. What’s more, In the Earth brings the forest to life in breathtaking, illustrious ways — the shadowy mist reaches out as though a horrific nightmare, the leaves rustle with a hushed and unnerving call. It creates an atmosphere that is claustrophobic and strangely inviting, with the forest as much a character as the people.
The cast does a lot of the heavy lifting, especially in moments of terror and eerie silence, and their performances are a standout. Joel Fry offers a balance between being earnest and emotionally haunted; Ellora Torchia brings trust and skepticism to Alma’s characterization; Hayley Squires portrays Olivia as both steady and frenzied; and Reece Shearsmith imbues Zach with moments of clarity before spiraling into untamed brutality, making him a fantastic antagonist in a multilayered and startling film. In the Earth fluctuates though. It’s a rousing horror with entrancing lore, an eco thriller with interesting themes, and a hostage drama that banks on gruesome and disorienting actions. Not everything comes together cohesively, but the story has a lot to offer and it’s grounded enough to leave a big and lasting impression.
In the Earth was released in theaters April 16, 2021. The film is 107 minutes long and is rated R for strong violent content, grisly images, and language.