From Robert Pattinson contracting COVID on the set of The Batman to Tom Cruise yelling at his Mission: Impossible crew to keep their masks up, producing movies (at least in the traditional sense) during the pandemic has been contentious to say the least. But you better believe that’s not enough to stop the feverish output of Ben Wheatley, a man seemingly incapable of taking a vacation from filmmaking.
In the Earth was shot by Wheatley and company last summer while in the thick of the UK lockdowns, using our heightened viral anxiety as his narrative inspiration. Set in a very-near-future/maybe-just-the-present where the pandemic continues to rage all over the world (we can assume that it’s COVID, although the specifics are never actually detailed), Wheatley’s stripped-down tale follows Martin Lowery (Joel Fry), a botanist who has travelled to an unspecified English forest to study the unusually fertile land within. And of course, wherever there’s unusually fertile land deep in the woods, there are also certainly some spooky shenanigans going on.
In this case, it may have something to do with Parnag Fegg, a mythic forest spirit that locals have been whispering about in hushed tones for decades. But since scientists never believe in that kind of tomfoolery, Martin heads into the woods to conduct his research unphased, accompanied by expert park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia). Naturally, the duo barely has time to take in that fresh woodland air before they’re promptly attacked, kidnapped and tied up by mystery man Zach (Reece Shearsmith), another scientist who had formerly trekked into the trees before becoming a crazed hermit who seems to be under the spell of this Fegg character.
After the high-profile disappointment of his adaptation of Rebecca, Wheatley retreats to familiar territory here, mashing up the occult themes that he so expertly mined in Kill List with the rural surrealism of A Field in England. All of his signature stylistic obsessions are present, from cringe displays of ultraviolence (an impromptu amputation has the same shock comic tone as the hammer scene in Kill List) to hallucinatory acid-trip detours. But while this all makes for an end product that’s pleasing enough to look at, complete with a typically hypnotic synth score from Clint Mansell to seal the mood, it all sort of leaves you wondering what exactly the point of this endeavour is. We’ve seen Wheatley do all of this before and since the story eventually just devolves into the same old running-and-hiding-in-the-woods scenario that’s been played out in any number of generic horror flicks, In the Earth ultimately lands with a resounding thud.
The end credits list all of the COVID safety personnel on set and it’s admirable that Wheatley wouldn’t compromise the safety of his crew for his creative aspirations. But as we all know too well, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. And by the time In the Earth reaches its predictable denouement, it seems like Wheatley is just making a movie for the sake of making a movie. Now that it’s out of his system, maybe he can spend the rest of the pandemic thinking about stretching in a new artistic direction.