Directed by Jaco Bouwer.
Starring Monique Rockman, Carel Nel, Alex van Dyk, and Anthony Oseyemi.
An injured forest ranger on a routine mission is saved by two off-the-grid survivalists. What is initially a welcome rescue grows more suspicious as the son and his renegade father reveal a cultish devotion to the forest.
Director Jaco Bouwer confirms himself to be a compelling filmmaking voice while helping put South Africa on the genre movie map with his tantalising eco-horror flick Gaia. Though its spare storytelling and bizarro style won’t be for all tastes, there’s an intoxicating pull to Bouwer’s sticky fever dream of haunting imagery that’s tough to entirely resist.
The base plot is dead-simple; two employees of South Africa’s forestry service, Gabi (Monique Rockman) and Winston (Anthony Oseyemi), enter South Africa’s Tsitsikamma forest to retrieve their lost drone. After Gabi suffers an injury, she’s aided by two survivalists living there, Barend (Carel Nel) and his son Stefan (Alex Van Dyk), before discovering a fungus within the woods that has world-changing potential.
Bouwer’s film speaks its environmentalist message primarily through its visuals; this is a mostly quiet, terse, sparse piece of work about the pitting of modernity against the natural world, using this dichotomy to challenge audience preconceptions about civilisation and “savagery.” While the moment-to-moment plot beats actually follow a surprisingly conventional monster movie path – right up to a final stinger that feels straight out of a multiplex horror flick – Bouwer’s execution is anything but.
Gaia is a film defined by its pitch-perfect atmosphere; DP Jorrie van der Walt’s lensing is so damn crisp you can practically smell the earthy environs, making stunning use of the natural wooded location. This is paired with Pierre-Henri Wicomb’s deliciously moody musical score, melding primal horns with percussive synths to bracing effect.
It is a stellar example of a filmmaker in absolute control of their style, even if some of the more ambitious visual effects evidently push up against budgetary limitations. Still, the art direction is stunning throughout, and this collision of practical and effects-driven filmmaking aptly mirrors the film’s own tension between the technological and the tactile.
Fans of body horror will also find plenty to enjoy here; though it’s easy to compare some of the movie’s fungus-infected creatures to those from the hit video game franchise The Last of Us, there’s a diverse diaspora of dangers residing in the forest, and Bouwer exploits them all in ways both revolting and existentially terrifying.
The film counts just four actors among its cast, each of them giving appreciably lived-in performances, the easy stand-out being Carel Nel, who makes the zealous, forest-worshipping Barend far more of a compelling, well-rounded character than his motivations might suggest on paper.
If Gaia has any one particular flaw, it’s surely that its svelte script can’t even begin to match up to its gorgeous style. This is a film to be lovingly bathed in for sure, albeit one that perhaps leans a little too eagerly on genre formula in its bones, and won’t offer up enough meaty character work for some viewers – even with such a diverting means of delivery. Some will surely call it style-over-substance, while others will insist the style is the substance; mileage is guaranteed to vary wildly.
Though more effective as a sensory experience than one driven by its story, Gaia’s mesmeric style compensates for its thin narrative and characters.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.