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In 2014, researchers at the University of the West of England in Bristol found that a certain strain of slime mould, Physarum polycephalum, was capable of drawing up a better organised motorway system than the Department for Transport. The scientists set the organism loose on a filter-paper map of the United Kingdom with oat flakes to represent the major cities, then watched it methodically link together these food sources into a mesmerisingly efficient protoplasmic web. After a few days, the slime mould had largely reproduced the UK’s existing road network from scratch with some thought-provoking adjustments: for example, it had re-routed the M6 and M74 through Newcastle.
This is precisely the kind of material that sets Ben Wheatley’s imagination a-festering. “The stuff is clearly intelligent,” he enthuses on a Zoom call from his home office in Brighton. “But since it has no brain, it’s hard to pin down exactly where the intelligence is. It’s like when you look out of the window of a plane and realise the human race down below looks suspiciously like mould. On the ground, we’re all behaving in what feels to us like very individual, intentional ways, but perhaps we’re all just cells serving the needs of the overall funguslike structure. Do you know what I mean?”
Admirers of Wheatley’s films – Kill List, Sightseers and High-Rise especially – should have a reasonable idea. The 48-year-old Essex-born director made his name showing modern Britain from a mad scientist’s perspective, squirming and oozing in a Petri dish, mutating in unnerving ways. After catching Hollywood’s eye with his 2015 shoot-out Free Fire, he was courted for higher-budget projects, and in February 2020 was set to direct a Tomb Raider sequel starring Alicia Vikander, with a script written by his wife and long-time collaborator, Amy Jump, whom he met when they were both in the sixth form at Haverstock School – alma mater of the Miliband brothers – in north London.
But then Covid closed everything down, and for the first time in six years he found himself with time to take stock and write. He had become increasingly intrigued by all things mycorrhizal: as well as the Bristol experiments, he greatly enjoyed a documentary about slime moulds, and a book about the rewilding of Britain’s woodlands that described the strange, internet-like “fungal networks” in the soil that allow trees and plants to communicate.
“That made me wonder if fungus might ever talk to us, and if so, what kind of person it would bother to talk to,” he explains. (Wheatley is big and hairy, with a silvering beard and eyes that seem to hide secrets: exactly how he should look.) “And when you sprinkle a bit of genre on top of that, it gets interesting.”
Such was the recipe for In the Earth, one of three films Wheatley wrote in the first few anxious months of lockdown and the easiest by far to make during a pandemic, since it is set almost entirely outdoors. It follows a scientist, played by Joel Fry, who embarks on a journey by foot with Ellora Torchia’s park ranger to a remote fungal laboratory deep in a forest that was once thought to be haunted by a malevolent spirit.
Wheatley and his regular producer, Andy Starke, initially hoped to shoot it last June, as the first wave subsided, but in the end, filming took place a couple of months after that, over 15 days in a patch of Oxfordshire woodland. This made it the first feature to begin production in the UK during the pandemic. Work had resumed on The Batman and Jurassic World: Dominion a few weeks earlier, “but they were working with crews in bubbles, so one could swap in if another got sick. If anyone on our film had got sick, the whole thing would have collapsed.”
While the film isn’t about Covid as such, it takes place during a pandemic, and Wheatley was determined for it to be released “riding the coat-tails of the moment, otherwise it would lose a bit of what it was about”. The film is one of his best to date, a return to the blood-curdling disruption of recognisable everyday life that marked out his earliest work. One scene involving a back-to-nature type (played by Reece Shearsmith), a big toe and a rusty hatchet harks back in its macabre humour and gut-wrenching shock value to one of his earlier shorts, 2009’s The Axe Trick, in which two hapless suburbanites attempt a Jackass-like stunt in their garden that goes gruesomely wrong.
When it premiered at Sundance earlier this year, In the Earth was seen by critics as something of a palate-cleanser in Wheatley’s career after his generously budgeted Netflix adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which gave him his biggest audience to date (it was the streaming service’s global number one for a week), but also his most mixed reviews. On the latter, he is admirably sanguine. “It was an opportunity to learn from Working Title” – the deluxe British production outfit also behind Bridget Jones’s Diary, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Atonement and so on – “and to make something that was very different from everything else I’d done so far,” he says. “It’s a similar thing to when you make a Doctor Who: you don’t go in there and have Peter Capaldi smash someone over the head with a hammer. You do it because you like it, not because you want to change it into something else.”
That was also the appeal of directing the Tomb Raider sequel: “it’s something missing from cinema at the moment – the simple adventure, when the characters explore and see amazing stuff, and there’s wonder and awe, and they’re chased, and there are tricks and traps. It was an itch I wanted to scratch.” It was the ever-spiralling Covid delays that made him depart the production and instead take up an offer to direct Meg 2: The Trench, a sequel to the 2018 monster movie in which Jason Statham went toe to fin with a giant prehistoric shark.
Here too, the untrendiness was part of the draw. “It’s a kind of cause-and-effect, blue-collar action movie that James Cameron and Steven Spielberg did really strongly and has gone out of fashion,” he says. Statham, he continues, is the ideal man for the job: “He has a world-weariness about him that reminds me of early Harrison Ford – a constant sense of, ‘Why is this happening to me? I’m very cross.’ ”
Until recently, few had Wheatley pegged as a blockbuster sequel guy – “But it’s less counterintuitive from the inside,” he explains. “Your name gets around, you write scripts that might go nowhere, but people remember you when something else comes up.” He frowns. “I mean, my appetites are well-established at this point. It’s not like I’m making B-movies but really want to be Wes Anderson.”
In the Earth is in cinemas now