South African Gaia (2021) Is Beautifully Haunting Eco-Horror
First Non-Festival Release: June 18, 2021 (Theatrical Release)
Director: Jacob Bouwer
Writer: Tertius Kapp
Runtime: 96 Minutes
Starring: Monique Rockman, Carrel Nel, Alex van Dyk
Where to Watch: Check out where to find it here
Two rangers (Monique Rockman, Anthony Oseyemi) get lost in the forest after splitting up to retrieve camera footage. Gabi finds herself on the receiving end of a brutal trap laid for the predators that are now stalking her boss, Winston. Eventually, she is found by father-son duo Barend (Carel Nel) and Stefan (Alex van Dyk) who take care of her in their modest home. As she heals, she learns that there are many secrets to the woods and that the men who took her in have a sordid history with the land.
Gaia is a richly atmospheric and slow-burn creature horror that doesn’t quite stick the landing.
A metaphor for how humans interact with nature, Gaia offers no easy answers for its audience. The creatures stalking the protagonists are humans who get lost in the wilderness and become both changed and inherently feral. Although they may appear beautiful, there is a hint of danger to them when they meet “civilized” people. Gaia also highlights the fickleness of mother nature in relation to man. This is highlighted in the irony of the ending on all counts. No person walks away from the forest unchanged.
Barend speaks often about being against technology, consumerism, and a life that is generally unsatisfying or meaningful. It’s interesting to see those points contrast with his life choices. His monologue on shunning society is not only well acted but further restates what the film is saying about the power imbalance between man and nature. It doesn’t hurt that it sounds exactly like a man who chooses to live off grid after finding God would speak.
This does lead to an issue with the set-up of the film: why would Barend allow Gabi to stay with them at any point? There are moments of tension which clearly shows him uncomfortable with her presence and paranoid about the effects she has on her son. I know that there might have been ulterior motives, but he also seemed eager to send Gabi on her way. Regardless, Carrel Nel steals the show as the paranoid and dogmatic Berand. His righteous fury and laser focus devotion to his god makes for a compelling character and an amazing performance.
This film looks stunning. The camerawork is unsettling and pulsing, much like the spores it follows. Flora and fungi feel both dangerous and inviting, which makes for a discordant chemistry. It works to the film’s advantage to pair something that appears so harmless as an antagonist. Gorgeous special effects make for some wickedly creative and frightening creatures. The best part of it all is that the antagonists don’t necessarily attack in the way one would expect, which keeps Gaia nice and refreshing.
Although there are many parts of Gaia worth commending, it has its share of problems. The excess of dream sequences slows the pacing of the film down without giving too much movement to the plot. One could argue they are necessary for foreshadowing, but it could be smoother integrated. Weird tension between Gabi and Stefan borders both on the sexual and maternal, which makes for a confusing watch. It’s hard to connect with the other themes unfurling throughout the film and ends up being tonally jarring in comparison.
A riveting first act slowly grinds to a satisfying halt by the all the cards are played. Gaia skates by with its languid story by dazzling the audience with hypnotic visuals, beautiful special effects, and a few well-placed scares. While it isn’t as captivating as one might hope, Gaia is an intriguing allegory for humankind’s relationship with the earth. A great cast and a bright creative team bring to life the haunting world within this unassuming forest. You may not find yourself worshipping the ground it walks on but Gaia is a competent enough creature feature to get under your skin.
Overall Score? 6/10