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The First COVID Horror Movie – ‘In the Earth’: Wheatley Brings An Apocalyptic Vision of Coronavirus to Life in a Surprising Way
This week, Neon released its COVID-inspired horror film In The Earth, directed by Ben Wheatley (Down Terrace, Kill List). Written across 15 days last August, the movie follows a scientist and a park scout in the midst of a pandemic. Their journey into a forest becomes imperiled as they find their environment shifting before them.
In The Earth opened in 575 runs in 128 markets over a 21-day window. Despite its lackluster 40% audience rating on RT, Earth made a strong showing –especially considering these times – in the specialty box office, grossing $506K through the weekend.
Though only making five runs in three markets, Gunda tallied the highest per-screen average this week at about a grand per screen, a solid showing for a non-conventional documentary. The animal documentary received rave reviews (98% on RT) with director Paul Thomas Anderson calling it “what we should all aspire to as filmmakers and audiences.”
Atlas Distribution’s The Girl Who Believes In Miracles added 112 screens heading into the third week of its run. The Rich Correll-directed drama tops the specialty box office again this week adding $554K into its piggy bank. It should easily break $2M by next week.
All the Academy Award-nominated holdovers posted decent weekends before next week’s Oscar Sunday. The Father crossed the $1.5M cume mark and both Minari and Promising Young Woman grossed at least $100K. If the latter two films receive an Awards bump, it will be possible to see the Minari and Promising Young Woman cross the $3M and $7M threshold, respectively.
Ben Wheatley, the auteur behind the films ‘Free Fire’, ‘High-Rise’, and ‘A Field in England’, returns to his horror roots with ‘In the Earth’, descending back down into the dark depths of the occult, into a phantasmagoria of terror, previously explored in his film ‘Kill List. Unlike ‘Kill List’, however, released a decade ago now, the circumstances surrounding the production and release of this film are far more different, far scarier.
It would be impossible to write this review without mentioning the ongoing pandemic we’ve all experienced for over a year now, the effects of which shaped everything from how we interact with other people to how we consume media to how we shop for groceries, everything from the banal to the essential; coronavirus changed how we experience the world; and we changed because of it; our movies are no different. Now, whether or not the real thing lives up to the horror Wheatley crafts in this film is beside the point, the point being: Wheatley channels its energy into something totally psychedelic and truly unforgettable.
‘In the Earth’
Like the world right now, the film is set during a global pandemic, setting up the various dialectical thematic engagements of the movie. nature vs. society, art vs. science, image vs. sound, which I’ll talk about later in the review, but, for now, it’s evident from the opening scene of the movie that the world of the film could have been lifted out of real life: masks, hand-sanitizer, viral-testing, isolation, lockdown. Biologist Martin Lowery, played by Joel Fry, most notably from ‘Game of Thrones’, arrives at a research facility out of a locked-down society, as he prepares to journey into the surrounding forest to assist his ex-girlfriend and biologist Olivia Wendell, played by Haley Squires, most notably from the film ‘I, Daniel Blake’, on a mysterious experiment for less than clear reasons, even to him.
Accompanying Lowery on his journey into the forest, is Alma, a park ranger, played by relative newcomer Ellora Torchia, and so the two embark into what becomes a hallucinatory but very real nightmare by the end of the film; but for the first act of the movie, the two ponder the natural world, the violent, tangle of life, and discuss the isolated modern world that they’ve left behind. It’s not until they meet the haggard and unhinged Zach, played by English television’s Reece Shearsmith, that the descent into nightmare begins, and what a nightmare it is!
So This Is What Shrooms Are Like?
Anyone who has ever seen a Ben Wheatley film knows the director likes to compose strobing, almost pulsating psychedelic images. If I was to choose the two movies from his filmography that remind me the most of this film aesthetically and thematically, I would choose ‘Kill List’ for its exploration of the occult and ‘A Field in England’ for its distinct visual style, its violently pulsating images. There is a logic to these sequences in a Wheatley film though; they don’t merely exist in the movies just because they look cool.
In ‘A Field in England’, for example, the diegetic world doesn’t begin to breakdown in the film’s edit until after the characters consume a bunch of magic mushrooms, and in ‘In the Earth’, mushrooms are again responsible for the transfiguration of the diegesis, although their function in the film is far more obscure than in ‘A Field in England’; here mushrooms spores form a sort of physical and psychic barrier between the modern world and the natural one, physically preventing the characters from getting help, but also psychically transporting them past the limit of rationality, thrusting them into an occult reality.
In this way, the edit doesn’t so much as a breakdown as it does open up the world of the film, even though this might not be a world that the characters want to be transported to; it’s a world that exceeds everything and in doing so contains the horror of everything.