I respect the hell out of Ben Wheatley for his drive to make new film. A good 90% of what he’s done, for better or worse, is actual original cinema — not an adaptation of a beloved novel, not a bastardization of a classic film, not a superhero flick that takes bits and pieces from comic books and cobbles them together into a weak installment of some neverending box-office-driven franchise. A Field in England and Sightseers are sort of the pinnacle of this criteria for Wheatley, with Field as a particular achievement — weird as hell, quite unlike anything you’ve seen to date, but importantly a cohesive experience that you can mine for deeper meaning and rewatch ad nauseam without feeling like you’ve exhausted it. Field does more with five or six actors and a muddy pasture than most movies do with $250 million, and so the prospect of Wheatley returning to ragtag roots with his latest film In the Earth was a promising one.
This is largely due to his most recent efforts: a workmanlike remake of Hitchcock’s Rebecca this past year, in which Armie Hammer wore the same yellow suit in like nine different scenes; High-Rise in 2016, an ultimately joyless adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel; and Free Fire, an original movie which zips along on first watch and positively drags on subsequent viewings. If each of these films was successively bigger — in budget terms, but also in scope — they also felt less and less like the scrappy Wheatley who made A Field in England in 12 days on just £300,000.
In the Earth follows Martin (Joel Fry) and Alma (Ellora Torchia) as they head into the forest in search of a missing scientist. A mysterious virus has ravaged the planet, and so even the usual wariness of meeting a stranger in the woods is massively heightened. The relevance to a world currently battling the coronavirus is intentional, as Wheatley began writing the film on the first day of the UK lockdown this past year. Principal photography on In the Earth occurred in August 2020, and Wheatley — in a post-screening Q&A after last night’s virtual premiere at the Sundance Film Festival — recalled the experience of a production that could have been shut down at any moment.
The result is a sort of stressed-out folk horror that feels rushed or incomplete in almost every aspect. There are flashes of A Field in England here, in moments of darkly humorous gore, in stilted overlapping dialogue, in the pared-down yet striking design of specific objects or locations. But it never comes together into anything greater. Things that are meant to catch your attention in the first half of the film — a series of trials concerning Martin’s foot, or the haunting lore around an ancient forest-dwelling beast — are forgotten in the second half. Laser-focus on something like a scar might be unsettling in the moment, but it never moves anywhere, instead just sort of sitting there before flicking to the next weird mirage.
In Wheatley’s introduction to the screening he warned that In the Earth is “not about Covid, but it doesn’t ignore it.” Certain ideas introduced in the film underscore this real-world inspiration, like the difficulty in communication between characters meeting for the first time after months and months in isolation. But after the introduction of this idea, the communication that resumes for the rest of the runtime is more or less what you’d find in a film without such a concept. Sure, like A Field in England before it, In the Earth is somewhat more of a psychological abstract than a straightforward narrative. And yet there’s neither a sense of satisfaction nor disquiet by the end. It just sits there.
Three non-Wheatley comparisons spring to mind, all in different budget brackets. First is The Ritual, another low-budget folk horror concerning forest wanderers brushing up against an ancient evil. Strange lights flashing in the woods coalesce into something meaningful in Ritual, relating to the character’s past such that the character’s future gains actual stakes. Strange flashing lights in Wheatley’s latest are very much just strange flashing lights. When In the Earth leans into hard sci-fi it’s tough not to think of the mid-budget Annihilation, and tough not to wish that the science presented here were even half as interesting. And as far as world-building is concerned, In the Earth comes across as the low-calorie version of Children of Men. That movie was made with £37 million, but the tangible nature of that virus-wracked world came not from money but from fully-realized ideas.
“People bargain with what they’ve got,” notes one character near the end of In the Earth. I respect Wheatley for his drive to make new film, original film, and film that doesn’t necessarily strive to fit a traditional narrative. He works with what he’s got, and when he’s got very little he still manages occasional brilliance. Successfully making a film during the coronavirus is an achievement, to be sure, but shorn of that one might hope Wheatley slows down a bit for his next original feature (if IMDb is to be believed, his next directorial effort will be a sequel to the Jason Statham shark actioner The Meg). I’ll still be there on opening night for that next new Wheatley film, but I won’t likely be revisiting In the Earth in the meantime.