Sundance Film Festival 2021: In The Earth

For the second Sundance screening of the week, we were presented with Ben Wheatley’s experimental plague horror film. I had absolutely no expectations for this film, as I’ve only seen Wheatley’s earlier film A Field in England (2013). Martin (Joel Fry) is able to get out of the city following the seemingly global pandemic, that is clearly modeled after COVID-19, and sets out to find a doctor who has been missing when he joins forces with Alma (Ellora Torchia). What follows is an incredibly experimental take on horror and science fiction, focusing on nature, psychology, and possibly magic. Honestly, this one didn’t do a whole lot for me, but it serves as a very interesting experiment of the COVID age.

Wheatley’s film features very interesting visuals and beautiful shots of nature, but very little character development for the two main protagonists in the film, leaving the viewer with little to connect with outside of being able to comprehend the isolation of quarantine and the trauma of plague. The base concept of the film is interesting, and I do like the idea of it being an experiment to create something relevant during COVID-19. It was fun seeing pumps of hand sanitizer, people wearing masks, and social distance being respected between the actors. But ultimately, it didn’t add up to more than a visual experiment that addresses the psychological impact of isolation and the pandemic.

In the Q&A following the film, Wheatley discusses how this was the first production to film following the initial lockdown in the UK in 2020. He stated that while writing the film in March of 2020, he was at home in lockdown watching films that were being released on streaming platforms that had been shot prior to the pandemic and how it was so weird seeing sequences with large crowds and no reference to the events of the world. That is something that I have often thought about when viewing films during the pandemic. It is odd seeing large crowds and social events in films and how it is just not something that is happening right now. Once again, Heidi Zwicker did a nice job moderating the Q&A. Wheatley and Torchia both gave detailed accounts of how different it was preparing for and shooting the film during a pandemic, touching upon the many Zoom meetings and how some folks hadn’t met until their first day of shooting.

If you’re a big fan of Wheatley’s work, you might find yourself interested in this and able to draw comparisons to themes touched upon in some of his other, more experimental, features. Personally, this was a one-and-done for me, but it was definitely interesting to see a film made during the pandemic that was shot outside of Zoom.

Here’s to four more Sundance screenings this week!

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