Terra Incognita

I went to see In The Earth. It is terrible. It is specifically terrible in the way when several quite good ideas are being thrown away without getting useful employment.

Martin Lowry turns up at a lodge on the edge of a forest. He has to undergo medical testing and some attempt at masking and sterilisation, though this is even more perfunctory than the procedures the cinema audience had to follow themselves. We are told that some sort of pandemic-style crisis is engulfing the cities and most of society, although it is still possible for the researcher Dr Wendle to be active at her centre far off in the woods, where Martin is to join her. He will go on a journey with the forester Alma. He is warned there have been failures of previous travellers who had to be found and rescued. He sees examples of the local folklore about the forest and its spirits, in the tourist literature still present at the lodge.

ANTI-SPOILER: if you notice that bit where Martin mentions there was a boy at his school with the same name, and they hated each other… no, it doesn’t give the key to understanding this all as a psychotic breakdown of a split mind etc. etc. That sort of thing is terribly old hat anyway.

What is fashionable nowadays is the notion of mycorrhizal fungal networks as an underground nervous system for forests, and the pop science/pop philosophy reception of this idea is already far ahead of the actual investigations. The full range of intentional systems language is being attached to tree-spirits and no one’s asked Daniel Dennett for an alternative interpretation. Even Edward St Aubyn is in on the game, it’s the new Magic Science Thing, like quantum theory or chaos theory or fractals: the current conceptual black box that gets any old trickery past the dastardly “scientific materialist worldview”. In this case it’s being put to work to give a sciencey explanation for the ancient wisdom of Malleus Maleficorum about tree-spirits and men getting possessed by mad thoughts in woodland. Reece Shearsmith is here, as the lonely seer who has to gabble out the speech about how Art and Belief are different ways of engaging Nature instead of dry Science; but his scientist competitor with her Ghostbox record collection and lightshow is not notably more methodical or theoretical either. It’s one of several half-baked ideas that should have been left out altogether.

There is material here for a good Inside Number 9 episode, and also some more for a not-so-good one. The best idea would be the pitch “Phase IV, but with trees” and that’s a film I’d like to see, but I don’t need the standing stone and the folk horror and the dinner party talking points about whether STEM or Humanities are best. Also don’t really need the pandemic backdrop or the half-hearted line about Wendle’s research being in crisis because it fails to show results. None of these characters ever hint at needing a toilet and they are always cleaner and tidier than they ought to be after so long outside, though perhaps Wendle has a shower unit and Portaloo as well as the massive generator she clearly requires for all her gear. The ending sequence is “trippy”, which is not the same as psychedelic or actually influenced by hallucinogens. The Ghostbox connection is made clear by the use of their stylings in the credits.

The banner image is from a page that came up when I Googled for an image related to “Terra Incognita”. I took the title from someone else’s story, which could be a short film.

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