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SYFY WIRE opinion

'Something in the Dirt' is one of 2022's must-see sci-fi films

The Sundance genre breakout deserves to be on your must-watch list this year.

By Matthew Jackson

I love the wonder of a good science fiction spectacle onscreen, the power of seeing a beautifully designed spaceship zipping through the stars, the awe of massive space battles, and so much more. Sci-fi on a grand scale can inspire wonder and awe, a sense that the future is at your doorstep, and provoke big ideas and big emotions about what lies beyond the world we know now. But, in the midst of all that spectacle, we sometimes forget how powerful science fiction can be when it's scaled down. Given the right story (and the right storytellers), that sense of wonder and awe can persist on a tiny budget — with minimal characters and no real sense of visual scope beyond the confines of a couple of rooms.

The filmmaking duo of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have proven this before, with their acclaimed low-budget sci-fi thriller The Endless, and they prove it again this year with Something in the Dirt, a mind-bending new genre piece that just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this month. Like The Endless, Something in the Dirt is an intimate look at two troubled souls searching for meaning in a world that seems to be against them, and that meaning comes across not in spite of, but because of, the confines of the script and the setting. This is an even smaller, even more confined film than The Endless, however, yet it's even more full of wonder and mystery. It is, without question, going to be one of the must-see sci-fi films of the year, in no small part because it's a masterpiece of using small-scale storytelling to stir grand-scale ideas.

The film picks up on two lonely guys just as they realize they've become neighbors: Wedding photographer John (Moorhead) and bartender Levi (Benson), who also happens to be in possession of an odd crystalline object that turned up on his doorstep. What begins as casual chatting and neighborly offers to share cigarettes soon turns into something more, as the men realize one of their apartments seems to be exhibiting some very strange characteristics. As they come to grips with what's going on, Levi and John decide to do the most obvious thing they can think of: Make a documentary that offers proof of the supernatural in their building.

This setup means that a fairly sizable portion of Something in the Dirt takes place in relatively nondescript, kinda crummy apartments, the sort of places guys who never quite made it in Hollywood might rent while they figure out their next move. There's nothing wondrous about the film's backdrop, but that's exactly the point. Levi and John are two guys who are very aware of the kind of digs they've managed to secure for themselves, which means that when strange stuff starts to happen it's all the more exciting for them. Benson and Moorhead's years of low-budget filmmaking chops mean that they're able to deliver on the visual effects necessary to pull their story catalyst off in a convincing way, and their ability to play off each other to inhabit John and Levi means that we can all see something of ourselves in what begins as the story of two guys who made a really unlikely discovery. Then, things start to take a turn.

The establishing sequences of Something in the Dirt, and the visual magic that makes those sequences convincing, lay the groundwork for what becomes a dark, compelling, labyrinthine descent into conspiracy science fiction, something that feels like a timely and timeless blend of The X-Files, Lake Mungo, and Annihilation. The notion that John and Levi should become filmmakers documenting their own search for meaning in the phenomena around their home introduces layer after layer of new information to the story, and raises endless questions along the way. How much of what we're watching really happened to these men? Can they trust each other if the endeavor becomes commercial, or could they ever trust each other at all? Is what we're seeing a real observance of some supernatural phenomena, or a descent into delusion fueled by cigarettes, loneliness, and desperation? The film seems less interested in providing answers than it is going deeper into the maelstrom of the lives of these men, and the sheer level of craftsmanship at work in delivering this string of questions means we have no choice but to follow into the depths.

Good science fiction makes us ponder the future while also asking questions about the present, and while that's often best represented by films that show us vast future societies steeped in technology and conflict, it can also come to stirring life in a small room where two guys are simply asking questions about weird lights glowing above the couch. With Something in the Dirt, Benson and Moorhead deliver a fascinating, fervent exploration of the world we're in now — isolated, paranoid, desperate to find meaning in every speck of the unusual — and then turn that exploration into a series of poignant, necessary questions about what kind of world we want to live in next. It's an understated, deeply affecting sci-fi gem, and an essential genre film for 2022.

Something in the Dirt does not yet have a wide release date.