Venturing into the forest can serve as a refuge from the commotion of a chaotic society and its many ills, especially amid a pandemic that’s made modern living a bit more claustrophobic. After all, exploring the great outdoors is one of the few respites many of us have enjoyed while otherwise sheltering in place. But communing with nature makes for a perilous proposition in writer-director Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth.

Amid a society ravaged by a similar viral threat to our own, a pair of professionals journey on foot through a remote stretch of Britain’s woodland on an equipment run, but quickly encounter the kind of late-night menace one might expect from the Blair Witch. The film thankfully veers into much more original terrain than presented in its well-worn setup―is there anything more quintessentially spooky than a forest at night, where humans, beasts and mysterious forces alike can run wild?—but it can’t avoid some fatal pitfalls along the way.

When park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) guides scientist Martin (Joel Fry) on what should be a two-day jaunt through wilderness, they encounter a few bad omens right off the bat, including hastily departed campsites. Before long, they’re violently attacked while they sleep, waking bruised and battered only to find their tents in tatters and Martin’s shoes stolen. Gingerly padding across the terrain, Martin proceeds to gruesomely slice open the sole of his bare foot and the prospects of reaching their destination, or simply making it out of the woods alive, begin to precipitously dim. And unfortunately, that’s not all the film has in store for Martin’s poor foot.

Alma and Martin will happen upon only two other souls in these woods: a shifty but impressively organized transient named Zach (Reece Shearsmith), and Olivia (Hayley Squires), a long-isolated researcher whose elaborate A/V setup makes her appear more prepped for an exclusive EDM festival set than for scientific inquiry. The murky intentions of Zach and Olivia, whether in conflict or cooperation, present the film’s greatest source of tension, even as Wheatley ramps up the gore factor and various blades and axes are wielded in the dark. But sensorily, the film’s most captivating moments arrive with the interplay of light and sound reverberating through the forest before giving way to vivid hallucinatory sequences.

Meanwhile, the film’s most interesting ideas lie in the notion that the natural world is essentially vibrating with the urge to communicate, and Olivia or other visionaries of her ilk merely have to hone the methods to receive that message. There are some compelling ideas here about the unlikely intersectionality of science and religion in the quest for transcendence—unfortunately, those ideas are buried under a meandering plot and listless characters.

Instead of delving into challenging philosophical or metaphysical terrain, the film is content to skim the surface. At one point, scientist Olivia goes so far as to lug out an ancient tome, evidently stitched together from a number of other books, to elaborate on the mysticism of the forest. (Why is there always a creepy leather-bound book to cryptically explain everything?) Some of this would be forgivable with more dynamic characters, but Alma and Martin have very little charisma and an awkward rapport, while Zach and Olivia’s respective peculiarities feel like contrivances. Wheatley imbues his film with none of the dark humor of Sightseers (2012) or the snappy dialogue and nimble action of Free Fire (2016). He claims to have written and directed In the Earth over a 15-day stretch in August 2020 and unfortunately it feels like it. With only half-formed ideas propped up by some skillful technical chops, In the Earth is trippy but aimless.

Summary
There are some compelling ideas here about the unlikely intersectionality of science and religion in the quest for transcendence—unfortunately, those ideas are buried under a meandering plot and listless characters.
50 %
Trippy but aimless
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