Ben Wheatley seems to be one of the few directors who does what he wants. From the occult thriller Murder List, to a couple separated by serial killings in the dark comedy Sightsweepers, to a long gunfight between arms dealers in Free Fire and a faithful adaptation of one of J.G. Ballard’s quirky science fiction works, High-Rise.

These films are often difficult to classify into a particular genre. Kill List may be a thriller, but it is also an example of English folk horror and a character study and family drama. Landmarks is both a relationship drama, a portrait of two dysfunctional lovers who accidentally embark on a killing spree (think the less romantic Badlands in the English countryside), and a black comedy that John Waters would be proud of. Highly, probably because of Ballard’s material, it is both an anthropological look at human cruelty – which sometimes degenerates into horrific images that would qualify it as a horror film – and a darkly humorous critique of Thatcherite capitalism. What these films have in common is a sense of lucid cynicism about the state of humanity. The problems these characters face are often exacerbated by their own shortcomings, problems they don’t want to face, selfishness they don’t want to admit. None of these characters are assured of a happy ending.

My favorite has always been A Field in England. It is a film that can hardly be described in simple genre terms. The film is set in 17th century England. It is a period piece with surrealistic horror, black comedy and existential drama. As the title suggests, the action is set in a small corner of the English countryside where the four characters must face the whims of a sinister alchemist. It’s delightfully unconventional and yet strangely sincere compared to Wheatley’s relentless work.

If you only know Wheatley from his slightly controversial remake of Rebecca, watch his early films to really understand the appeal of his filmmaking.

Unfortunately, Wheatley seems to have been trimmed to make a big-budget Hollywood movie. Future projects include a Meg sequel (a giant shark movie starring Jason Statham) and a Tomb Raider sequel (without Angelina Jolie).

Maybe Wheatley is genuinely interested in solving a traditional Hollywood problem, or maybe he’s doing it to fund something idiosyncratic. Anyway, none of these movies are made for nerds like me. But before Wheatley gave us his cinematic interpretation of the basking shark, he made another horror film – in secret, at the beginning of the pandemic – called On Earth.

Blind access

It’s a boring cliché, but true nonetheless: It’s better to see the Earth completely blind. A seasoned fan of the genre will probably guess at some of the twists and turns, but it’s still the kind of film that falls in love with the scary unknown, and that’s one of its most enjoyable qualities.

A mysterious epidemic, apparently caused by COVID-19, has plunged the world into chaos. But the viewer does not witness this chaos as we follow scientist Martin (Joel Frye) on his journey to a research facility in the woods. After several months in quarantine, Martin is struggling to adjust to the old standards, as evidenced by his awkward conversations with the other scientists. Martin, a researcher of microorganisms, arrives at the research center to work with Dr. Wendle (Hayley Squires), who is missing. Before other scientists lost contact with him, Dr. Wendle was researching the mysterious mushroom that seems to rule the forest and its ability to communicate with the special consciousness that drives it.

Together with park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia), Martin goes deep into the woods to find the missing Dr. Wendle. After being ambushed at night by unknown assailants, they get help from Zack, a friendly, long-haired recluse (played by regular Whitley actor Rhys Shearsmith). Things are gonna get weird.

Neon

Large stream

The few actors in the film do their jobs as well as they can. Joel Frye brings a beautiful vulnerability to Martin. He’s not a bad guy, he’s scared, weak and whiny – although given what happens to him, it’s hard not to feel sorry for him. Ellora Torchia, as the down-to-earth Alma, is the perfect complement to this soft-spoken Martin. Without giving too much away, this isn’t a movie where the damsel in distress is the damsel in distress – it’s usually the other way around.

Shearsmith is reliable as ever, no wonder he steals the show when he appears. There is a lot to say about her character, but then I would be giving away important plot elements.

Return to old habits

On Earth, everything happens in a seemingly serene forest where the presence of an evil force is unmistakable. One constantly has the impression that the characters are being observed. Despite the ominous atmosphere, Wheatley shows his own kind of humour – culminating in the touch of a gloriously sharp axe.

The context for the emergence of this disease seems to be an afterthought. To be honest, with a little tinkering, it might not be necessary for the story. Although there is an example of poignant dialogue between Martin and Alma when they discuss the post-pandemic world. Everyone will forget what happened, says the cynical Alma, perhaps in place of Whitley’s misanthropic attitude, they’ll just pick up their old habits again.

As a fan of synthesizer music, one of my favorite aspects of the film was the soundtrack, which was by Clint Mansell. Like Mansell’s soundtrack for High-Rise, the soundtrack is ethereal, with even touches of John Carpenter. He is more interested in the mood than in the emotions of the spectator.

Undercooked

People who are sensitive to flashing lights are better off skipping this group. His surreal sequences are presented through a cacophony of synthesizer music, strobe lights and flashing images. Initially entertaining, one gets the impression that the film loses itself a bit in this stylistic choice, especially when it starts to drag a bit.

The first half of the film is also more exciting than the second. At first you wonder where the film is going, but as it progresses it becomes frustratingly predictable at times. In the beginning, a character’s motives are obvious, and you just wait for the inevitable reveal.

The scientific theme of the film, the idea that invisible nature can communicate with humans through sound and light, is interesting but underdeveloped. There is an interesting aspect to our need to constantly anthropomorphize the non-human as nature that is never really explored.

There’s also a pagan undertone that, like the scientific themes, doesn’t seem cooked enough. Established mythology is fascinating, especially when combined with scientific rhetoric. It’s a shame it hasn’t been fully explored.

The ending of the film is also not entirely satisfying. Despite a gripping set-up, the climax is disappointing and conventional. I feel like it needed something different, something more transcendent, to make it truly memorable.

Nonetheless, In the Earth is a worthy new entry in Wheatley’s fascinating cinematic oeuvre. The journey may be more interesting than the final destination, but it’s still a very intriguing and intricate piece of filmmaking.

Sir, I want to thank you for your support. Wheatley, please make more movies like this than giant shark movies with Jason Statham. There are plenty of other small-time directors who are more than willing to waste the audience’s time with this crap.

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