Almost a year into the pandemic and coronavirus-themed shows, flicks and literature have started to crop up. The early bird was that soapy soap opera “Love in the Time of Corona.” Now we’ve got bigger names but equal banality in movies like HBO Max’s heist film “Locked Down,” which featured a couple using the COVID-19 lockdown as an excuse to rob banks. These have largely been on-the-nose, low-hanging fruit — the media gunning for brownie points that we, the socially isolated and under-vaccinated public, are loath to distribute.
And yet, it’s a little strange when the new fare we watch features bustling crowds of happy people, blissfully unaware that their immune systems are gloriously, divinely exposed. “In the Earth” strikes that balance. It’s a rainbow fish in a vapid viral sea, and we can only hope it starts to share its scales real damn quick.
Neither “COVID” nor “coronavirus” are ever said, but “In the Earth” is very clearly set during the COVID-19 crisis, or in an otherwise comparable pandemic. They’ve got their masks, they’ve got their hand-sanitizing stations and talks of quarantine abound. One woman apologizes for having not talked to anyone in three months. Another guy lies to his doctor about how much he’s been exercising while isolating.
“In the Earth” is completely a creature of the pandemic. The idea for the film was conceived on the first day of the U.K. lockdown. The film was shot during the summer months over 15 days, the first new British production since the crisis started.
But, as writer-director-editor Ben Wheatley (“Rebecca”) was quick to point out in the post-premiere Q&A session, “In the Earth” is not about the pandemic — it’s a reflection of our times. Some traces of lockdown living — natural themes of isolation and its strain on interpersonal relationships — are indelibly imprinted on it, but the film stands on its own two legs.
The stars of this micro-budget venture are small-time but guileful actors Joel Fry (“Love, Wedding, Repeat”) and Ellora Torchia (“Midsommar”). Fry plays Martin, a cute-as-a-button mycologist trekking into the fictional Arboreal Forest to pair up with fellow fungus scientist Dr. Wendle (Hayley Squires, “In Fabric”) and study the mycorrhizal mat that suffuses the environment.
Torchia plays the cigarette-smoking, coffee-swilling guide, the park ranger Alma. Their research station is a two-day jaunt through the woods — no bikes, no shuttles, no nada. “People get a little funny in the woods,” Martin’s doctor tells him. It’s easy to get lost in a two-day cross-country journey, and it doesn’t help that the locals tell of Parnag Fegg, some sort of woman of the woods or pagan monster or chthonic spirit or what have you that wanders the forest. You can see where this is going.
And you’re wrong! It’s not going there. Or it kinda is. It does. But it goes other places too.
“In the Earth” resists clear-cut categorization. Establishing shots feature verdant expanses of ferns and vine-choked gymnosperms but are accompanied by an arresting synth score by Clint Mansell. This contrast of the natural and electronic is emblematic of the film as a whole.
While clearly a child of horror and British science fiction, it’s wont to blend the supernatural and sci-fi in a satisfying mélange that drips with the energy of a precocious pre-teen playing around in the forest with his Super 8. The film’s primary vehicle is that of slashery, “survive-alone-in-the-woods” type horror — after an uneventful day in the woods, the immediate concern for Martin and Alma is an ax-wielding weirdo (played with razor-sharp skill by Reece Shearsmith, “High-Rise”) who likes photography.
But the film’s second act takes a turn into the (visually and conceptually) psychedelic, an almost literally psilocybin-fueled flip that amalgamates folklore and science-gone-wrong. As dazzling as that sounds, the latter half of the film is the weaker one. Once the science mumbo jumbo is introduced, it’s rapid fire.
The relative emptiness of the characters becomes apparent: Martin is private and panicky, Alma is cool and capable and that’s that. But these are forgivable sins — this is a lean, spartan story that knows not the meaning of the words dilly nor dally. And it’s psychedelia — dazzling and a tad confusing is kind of the point.
“In the Earth” is no all-timer, but it’s a modest gem, an enthralling and elemental film that provides a sterling example of the art we can produce during these, ahem, unprecedented times.
Daily Arts Writer Jacob Lusk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.