In the Earth (CREDIT: NEON)

Starring: Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, Reece Shearsmith, Hayley Squires

Director: Ben Wheatley

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: R for A Few Scenes of Grievous Bodily Harm

Release Date: April 16, 2021 (Theaters)

In the Earth combines elements of some of my favorite dread-filled horror and sci-fi flicks, which is good enough to grab my attention, but you can see the seams in the synthesis. A scary trip to the woods quickly leads to reality-altering vibes in the vein of Annihilation and The Blair Witch Project, and then there’s also the society-breaking-down milieu typical of any zombie flick. And I even catch a whiff of pod people-energy, as I worry that certain characters’ misplaced priorities could lead to some body snatching. It’s a hodgepodge, occasionally a visual feast, and ultimately more of an experiment than a landmark achievement.

My only previous exposure to writer-director Ben Wheatley was his overcaffeinated shoot ’em up Free Fire. In the Earth is equally non-squeamish (it does feature a guy getting his toes cut off, after all), but it’s also more reflective and meditative. Conceived and produced during the pandemic, it obviously required a more scaled-down and intimate approach. It’s ostensibly about the cure for a global virus, but it hardly resembles our current reality, at least not in any way I or anyone I know has been experiencing it. In practice, it’s just a spooky sylvan journey, making it just the latest in a long and dense cinematic tradition. Something weird is happening, a couple of characters are sent off on their own to figure it out, and then they encounter some other weird happenings. It happens!

During In the Earth‘s early going, I said to myself, “Is this just Annihilation but with a micro-budget?” That trip to Area X is one of my favorite movies of the past five years, so I quickly steeled myself for inevitable disappointment. But it’s always nice to be reminded of something that I love, so it wasn’t all bad. Then about halfway through, there was a sharp turn to a completely different movie. Well, perhaps not “completely” different. More like “tangential” and “different enough.” One major crisis had been dealt with (or at least escaped from), and then some other characters got some more screen time, and I felt myself thinking: well, it’s better to steal from a whole bunch of movies than it is to be the cheap knockoff of just one movie.

In the Earth is Recommended If You Like: Annihilation, Blair Witch, The Walking Dead, and whatever ever else Ben Wheatley watched during the pandemic, all tossed carelessly into a blender

Grade: 3 out of 5 Backpacks