In the Earth is an Arboreal Apocalypse Now - Taylor Holmes inc.

In the Earth is an Arboreal Apocalypse Now

In the Earth is an Arboreal Apocalypse Now
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Let me be clear – the movie, In the Earth is an Arboreal Apocalypse Now. You remember the dark, downward spiral, that was Apocalypse Now? Starts off with a green recruit, slowly adapting the weird normalcy that is Vietnam. But soon the normalcy gives way to new lows of darkness. And soon he realizes that the only surety he had was that there was no low to the darkness of Vietnam. This Heart of Darkness voyage becomes an intimate internal struggle for mental survival…a psychosis struggle of the soul. Well, Ben Wheatley, the creator of High-Rise, Free Fire, and Kill list, has brought us another mind job of mind jobs, “In the Earth.” I mean, come on, if I’m likening it to Apocalypse Now? Yeah – this one is an epic ride.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet – I will say this. If you enjoyed Mandy. Color Out of Space. Maybe some Annihilation (more the books than the movie)? Or more like Dark Song, or better yet, The Girl With All the Gifts… then you’ll enjoy this. But there is quite a bit of gore, and it’s dark as can be. Oh, and if you have a chance that you might tilt by lots and lots of blinking, flashing lights? This is a hard pass for you. So keep that all in mind before you dive into this mindjob.

Walkthrough of In The Earth

The world has dropped into the grip of a global deadly pandemic. (Some reviewers have mistaken this for Covid, but it is really quite clear that this deadly illness is something else entirely. Something much worse, and much deadlier. And this detail is a critical point actually to understanding the larger point of this movie. So we would do well to understand this at the outset.) And in the middle of this deadly pandemic, Martin (played gorgeously by Joel Fry, from Yesterday, and Game of Thrones) leaves his home of seclusion for the past four months, and heads out into the forest. He’s got a grant studying plant growth, ecosystems, or something or other in that vein. But in this particular location, the locals have some sort of fixation with Parnag Fegg. A spirit of the woods of some sort. (And when an occult, or dark myth, is introduced in the first five minutes of a movie, you always pay attention – because she’ll be gutting characters in the next thirty minutes if you aren’t careful.)

Martin Lawry is heading out into the woods to deliver some equipment to his old acquaintance (and possible ex-fling), Olivia Wendle (played by Hayley Squires, from Collateral, which I’ve been dying to watch. Have you watched it? Is it any good?). She has been out in the woods now, without contact, for months. And she’s probably due a wellness check. So Martin, and his guide, Alma (played by the lovely Ellora Torchia – who I like as an actor, MINUS the fact that she was in the most horrifying movie of all time: Midsommar. This is a certifiable fact. This isn’t something we are discussing. We are moving on.) trudge two days journey into the forest in the hopes of reconnecting with Dr. Wendle. And along the way the duo find an abandoned tent with signs of children? Hrmmm. Something is going on here. But no one is to be seen.

As Martin and Alma get closer to Dr. Wendle’s camp, things go horribly pear-shaped. While sleeping, their tents are attacked, the two of them a bludgeoned pretty badly, and their shoes are stolen. (eh?) But it becomes clear why soon enough, when, walking barefoot, Martin serrates the bottom of his foot on a rock. Like, wide open, sort of serration. Thankfully though (?), the duo come across the camp of Zack – who we learn later is Dr. Wendle’s husband – and he is kind enough to stitch up Martin’s foot, give them a lovely drink……… and they are out. While they are both unconscious, he dresses them up, arranges them, and photographs them.

He also cuts them both, and “Marks them” for some reason. Worse, Zack thinks that Martin’s foot is really bad, and that some of his toes need to be amputated. Now look, I have to say, this is one of the most horrible things I’ve seen on film. A guy whacking indiscriminately at someone’s toes with a hatchet? And eventually he ends up taking off the poor guy’s three smaller toes.

Zack talks to them both about how Dr. Wendle has it all wrong. She thinks that she can approach the god of the forest, Parnag Fegg, using science and data. But Zack knows that he desires art, poetry, and music. Which is why he arranges and photographs people, in order to give the art as an offering. (Dude, I don’t know – I’m just telling you what the madman is saying.) Zack also believes that he can hear the forest coursing through his ears, and that everyone is called to him.

Eventually though, Alma is able to get free, and she attacks Zack in order to get Martin free as well. But Zack shoots Alma with an arrow, and drops her. Martin, meanwhile stumbles into the body and intestines of another person that Zack has dismembered. He is eventually able to get up, and stumble his way out of the camp and towards Wendle’s camp. And that is when things go seriously Island of Doctor Moreau direction, Apocalypse Now, or Heart of Darkness, or take your horrifying psychotropic literature of choice. Flashing strobes, images, smoke, extraordinarily loud speakers. But it was just a warning system? It was a defensive system she’d set up… or was it?

Dr. Wendle finds Martin, and goes into the woods to find Alma as well. And thankfully, they’ve been rescued from Zack by the logical, sane scientist, Dr. Wendle. Hahahahah. Oh, you poor innocent souls you. Wendle cauterizes Martin’s foot, and begins to tell them about her research, and how it has left the reservation of the sane, and ventured wildly out into the reservation of the deeply occult. Her research has allowed her to figure out how to talk to the trees. To listen to the pulses in the root systems, and responded in kind. And that the forest itself calls others to itself. Zack and Wendle even had ringworm which allowed the forest to communicate with them. And as luck would have it, so too did Martin. They were all called out to the woods by Parnag Fegg.

Alma is beyond certain they just need to flee. To head back to civilization as fast as humanly possible. But Martin isn’t so sure. He thinks that Wendle might actually be on to something. What, he doesn’t know. Let’s just say that his academic mind wants to see the evidence and understand what she is researching. Alma though knows that Wendle has completely flipped her lid, just like Zack did, but in a different way. Soon though, the mushrooms of the forest begin kicking into the air all kinds of scary mists. And when they walk into the pollen in the air, it instantly sends them to their knees. It is an impenetrable wall of pyscho-insanity. The camp is encircled by it. The forest is physically keeping them there. Forcing them to retreat.

Zack comes to the camp. He is able to move through the mist somehow. And we know that Zack is assisting Dr. Wendle. The two are still working in tandem. Zack and Wendle talk Martin into drinking some awful sludge, and head out to the shibboleth in the forest. (Shibboleth? Standing stone with a hole in the middle. Runes, you know the whole Druidic deal.) Alma is incapacitated, knocked out, and Martin learns that he will be sacrificed at the stone in order to help Wendle and Zack communicate with the forest. Eventually, Alma is able to get up, and kill Zack – gruesomely I might add. “Nope. You have to take me to the hospital…” probably the best laugh of the whole movie.

And as the movie comes to a close, the mist of the forest overwhelms the camp. It floods over them all. Wendle, Zack, and Alma. And they have a cosmically mind-bending head trip. They see cells, and sound, the cosmos, and the vines and vegetation. They watch as their lives play out again before their eyes. And in the morning, Dr. Wendle collapses under the weight of it, and tells the forest and Parnag Fegg thank you. Alma on the other hand, stumbles her way back to Martin, as she tells him, “Let me guide you out of the forest…”

“Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.

How hard it is to tell what it was like,
this wood of wilderness, savage and stubborn
(the thought of it brings back all my old fears),

a bitter place! Death could scarce be bitterer.
But if I would show the good that came of it
I must talk about things other than the good.”

In The Earth Explanation

Yeah, nope. There is no explanation for this insanity! hahaha. Let’s give it a go anyway, shall we? First, we know that the earth has been overrun. There has been an extraordinarily deadly pandemic that has run wild over the face of the planet. We don’t know much about the disease itself, but it is very deadly. And the movie sort of let’s us know that Wendle and Zack believe anyway, that the earth is fighting back. The earth has been subjugated and constrained for too long. The era of human dominance was over. Moreover, Wendle believes that all of nature is interconnected utilizing root systems as a sort of micro-cortex-circuitry that encircles the globe. She once thought it was contained, but now she’s come to believe it wraps the earth, and communicates its will to all people.

Now, I have to say, there is some truth to this idea. There was an awesome Radio Lab talking about this idea of the inner workings of trees and plants, and their expansive root systems, etc. The episode is called Tree to Shining Tree. And it’s a fantastic listen. And they’ve done other episodes about the intelligence of root systems, and how they can sense water, and move in the direction of sound. There’s just a lot more to plants than we give them credit for. But a god? Okay. They’ve gone a bit too far for my tastes. But it is interesting to see what the forests are capable of. How they live and breathe and move on their own. And the raw psychotropic effects that many plants can have is quite impressive really – so much so that it has been noted in research (by Johns Hopkins, no less) that they can even cause spiritual experiences. So the film, at least from my uninitiated, and untrained eye, seems pretty on point, at least factually… in regards to biology anyway. (Are there mushrooms or fungi that kick psychotropic mists into the air? I assume so, but I have no idea. Did some interwebs searching and my search-fu failed me. Ideas?)

Practically speaking, since I don’t believe in Parnag Fegg… all of the necromancy/alchemist chaos, can all be explained by the fact that Dr. Wendle, and Zack, had been roasting in the mushroom juices for months on end. They had been practically OD’ing on psychotropic drugs, day in and day out, for the duration. And I would assume the drugs took their toll. The next thing we know, they are sacrificing anyone that comes near. Of which, there were lots and lots of people fleeing from the disease crashing the rest of the world… hoping for a respite in the woods, only to trip across these two mad individuals.

The only way out from the necromancy madness? Either at the hands of Dr. Wendle or their own downward spiral of madness, was to flee. To get as far away from this stretch of earth as possible. Could it be that this is actually the disease spreading around the world? That it is actually the unleashing of plants on the world, and not a flu, black plague, or Covid type experience at all? It may very well be. All we know that this particular land is extremely special. For some odd reason. That everything here might just be dialed to 11.

My Thoughts on In The Earth

I personally love crazy little films like this. The Mandy‘s of the Indie world. The Mother!‘s and The Girl With all the Gifts and Color Out of Space sorts of films. They are crazy in how they just marinate in their own crazy logic. Personally, wasn’t a huge fan of the body-gore… way too close to Midsommar for my own liking. But over all, it was a fun little ride. I don’t know, what did you think of it?

Edited by: CY