Sunday, January 31, 2021

Sundance with Abe: In the Earth

I’m thrilled to be covering the Sundance Film Festival for the eighth time. This year, I’m not in Park City, Utah, but watching films virtually and reviewing them as soon as I can.

In the Earth
Directed by Ben Wheatley

One of the key elements of dystopian movies, and a good deal of science fiction in general, is the emptiness of once-populated areas. Protagonists are often seen traversing or wandering large spaces, whether they’re abandoned neighborhoods or vast forests, rarely encountering other people but well aware that they could happen upon dangerous, unpredictable elements at any moment. Whatever the threat was that felled humanity may be less severe and problematic than the way in which those who have survived have now adapted for their own survival.

Dr. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) crosses through a quarantine checkpoint in search of Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires) and a test site that might provide some answers to the virus that is afflicting the world. He is guided by park scout Alma (Ellora Torchia), who quickly demonstrates her resilience in the forest, though neither of them are prepared for an attack that leaves them worn-down and without shoes. When they meet Zach (Reece Shearsmith), a mysterious man living within the forest, they debate whether to trust him, a decision that has vicious consequence as his fanaticism is gradually revealed.

This film comes from writer-director Ben Wheatley, best known for horror films that this reviewer has largely avoided. The two films from his resumé I have screened are “High-Rise,” a dizzying satire about class systems, and “Down Terrace,” a clever and biting look at criminality. This entry zeroes in on a select few characters who have much more stimulation from the seemingly endless nature of the woods around them and the sounds they hear than from any intellectual conversation. But existing in the world in a solitary way only goes so far, and encountering those whose sanity has been challenged by their experiences and outlook can be vicious and horrifying.

The way that this film slowly wanders into unknown territory and unravels the terrors lurking within that forest is reminiscent of “Annihilation,” and Martin and Alma are equally unprepared for what they will find as that crew was. There are also elements of “Embrace of the Serpent,” particularly the deep belief in cultural mythology and the significance people have in the greater order of things. Those seeking a deep psychological dive into the harrowing and haunting may find this dizzying, psychedelic experience satisfying, but its storytelling approach feels purposefully disjointed, serving to disorient audiences as much as to intrigue them. Descending its dark, violent path isn’t all that appealing, and this gruesome head trip is more agonizing and baffling than anything else.


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