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.
Gaia begins with an assortment of upside-down God’s eye view camera angles over a South African forest that twirls just as much as they dizzy. Its attention-grabbing cinematography immediately establishes a foreboding and eerie atmosphere for the locale (although the title, which means Mother Earth, also does a good job at that) and announces upfront that the proceedings will be somewhat abstract and challenging. Entering this exotic landscape are a couple of park rangers named Gabi and Winston (played by Monique Rockman and Anthony Oseyemi, respectively), seemingly researching because the former will write a book on the environment. The reason they are there almost doesn’t even matter, as one of the two survivalists living there catches and destroys one of their drones. As a result, Gabi and Winston decide to do what always works in horror movies, unsure of what lurks in their surroundings; they split up.
The inhabitants of this jungle are Barend (Carel Nel) and Stefan (Alex van Dyk), a father-son duo that is there by choice and appeared to want to appease whatever supernatural force is living within. Gaia also takes place in the modern world (as evident by the drone mentioned above and cell phones), although these two essentially live like cave dwellers. Barend goes out of his way to keep Stefan in the dark about technology, who has no honest opinions or thoughts of his own living life from his father’s perspective.
All four characters here have an enemy to battle against; fungus zombielike creatures (yes, they are pretty much precisely Clickers from The Last of Us) who can infect anyone they get a hold of. What’s more disturbing, albeit hauntingly beautiful, is how nature completely overtakes their bodies if blood is not removed or medication is not applied. Think of the Creepshow anthology segment centered on Stephen King, but not limited to grass or “meteor shit.” Death is poetically realized with gorgeous sights of nature. It also bears mentioning that for a low-budget feature, the practical effects and CGI impressively stack up to some recent Hollywood blockbusters.
Eventually, Gabi crosses paths with the loners (Winston meets a crueler fate) as they help her recover following getting caught in an ankle trap and then instruct her on how to survive. Silence is critical (the creatures seem to hunt using smell and echolocation), bow and arrows prove effective during combat, and sticking together is vital. She also uncovers various memos and documents explaining away some exposition that father and son are here for a questionable reason. Admittedly, dialogue is one of the film’s weaknesses, most notably when Barend spits out a tangent against the outside world that’s both correct yet also a bit too edgy. It should be evident that Gaia offers up some analogies and visceral fitful touches reflecting the current destruction of Earth. Still, his hatred against, say, cell phones comes across forced, even accounting for the fact that he wants to keep technology away to maintain a handle on his son.
In her quest to escape whatever the hell is going on here (it becomes increasingly clear that the father is off his rocker), Gabi bonds with Stefan not only because she wants assistance fleeing, but she also knows it’s wrong how sheltered and dangerously raised the young adult is. Again, the plot is not necessarily delivered in an impressionable or memorable way, but the photography is striking throughout with images that blend human and nature with a combination of benevolence and malevolence. There is also a particular dream sequence that’s hypnotically bizarre.
Director Jaco Bouwer and writer Tertius Kapp have created an uneasy, atmospherically potent, and visually astounding look at Mother Earth taking vengeance. While the shifting dynamic between Gabi and Stefan (who grows more conflicted by the hour) provides something intriguing in terms of character, it’s also the relatively restrained and body language performances from all involved that offset rough writing and storytelling. Everything about Gaia, from its garbled synthetic score, steady pace (that knows when it’s time to reveal more information), and trippy presentation, evokes an unsettling fear. Gaia might not leave a profound impact, but it’s assuredly a spellbinding, nightmarish journey.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com