Dreamweavers, visionaries, plus actors… filmmaking pair Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s latest DIY sci-fi bubbles with mad ideas and eerie pre-apocalyptic vibes. It’s easy to see why the duo have been recruited by Marvel to direct some of its headtrip Moon Knight series: headtrips are what they do – albeit they’re usually the ones on screen experiencing them.
If you imagine a mumblecore X-Files episode featuring a couple of LA slackers and a floating slab of quartz, you’d barely be halfway towards conjuring the slowburn brain-bend of Something in the Dirt. It’s another cerebral rabbit-hole to follow up the ‘time-travel-with-conquistadors’ cosmic musings of 2020’s Synchronic that throws out new ideas almost as quickly as you can absorb them. New Los Angeles neighbours John (Moorhouse) and Levi (Benson) discover a mysterious energy field in Levi’s otherwise nondescript apartment and set to work recording the phenomenon for a hastily cobbled-together documentary. Who knows, they wonder, maybe Netflix will buy it?
John, the kind of hipster evangelical conspiracy nut whose wifi password is ‘Judgment day’, and the mellower Levi, the only man in LA who struggles for bar work, make an unlikely filmmaking team. But they’d soon butting heads like old pros as they start using dramatic recreations to show their close encounter.
That film-within-a-film, which takes in old home video footage and talking-head interviews, diverts the focus enough away from the otherworldly McGuffin to suggest that the energy field Benson and Moorhead are really interested in is the one between artistic collaborators working in close quarters.
A DIY sci-fi, bubbling with mad ideas and eerie pre-apocalyptic vibes
As the duo hit creative thermals, bicker over how to tell their story and fumble their equipment, there’s an unmistakable hint of self-own. ‘Are you quoting Dan Brown books right now?’ Levi asks his co-director as he weaves another hare-brained theory. You can easily imagine this pair of pop-culture and hard sci-fi savants throwing similar burns at each other in the writing process.
Something in the Dirt is less satisfying than their best work – 2017 cult sci-fi The Endless – and doesn’t boast the same killer payoff. But it does offer a provocative road map for how conspiracies take shape, as well as some acerbic wit to humanise its sci-fi abstractions. On this evidence, Moon Knight is going to be some trip.
Something in the Dirt premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.