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Film

In the Earth

In the Earth

Ben Wheatley, director
Neon
2020
107 minutes

Against the backdrop of a raging pandemic, scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) sets out for a remote research site to join a colleague who is studying a complex root system deep in the forest. While being led to the site by park guide Alma (Ellora Torchia), the pair are brutally attacked and robbed. They continue their trek through the woods shoeless and without their gear, before encountering Zach (Reece Shearsmith), who lives in the woods and offers them food and shelter and bandages their wounds. The film shifts from unease to a tense fight for survival, as the pair are forced to join in Zach’s arcane rituals by which he worships and seeks to gain the favor of the forest spirit Parnag Fegg.

Part thriller, part horror film, In the Earth offers viewers a thought-provoking comparison of the varied methodologies we use to understand and interact with nature as scientific inquiry and ancient tribal ritual begin to blur. In one scene, riffing on Arthur C. Clarke’s famous law (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”), Zach comments that “photography is like magic—then again so is all technology if you don’t know how it works.” The line between ancient alchemy and modern-day science becomes even thinner after Martin and Alma find Martin’s colleague Olivia (Hayley Squires) and discover that her work is more similar to Zach’s than it first appears.

Although the pandemic is not the main focus of the story, In the Earth was filmed over 15 days during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and it aims to capture the zeitgeist of our current era, even as its vivid forest setting offers a brief respite for those of us who find ourselves stuck inside for days on end. The film’s main characters are thrust into extraordinary circumstances controlled by forces they do not fully comprehend, individuals manipulate science and myth to advance their own aims, and seemingly disparate people must work together to survive.
“I wanted to make a film that contextualized the moment,” explained director Ben Wheatley in the press notes accompanying the film. To ignore the pandemic would have been “like making a film in 1946 and not referencing the fact that everyone had just gone through the second world war.”

Editor’s note: The content of this review is solely the responsibility of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. FDA.

About the author

Division of Biotechnology Manufacturing, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Silver Spring, MD 20993, USA.