As 2021 strides into its latter half, South African eco-horror Gaia makes it way onto VOD platforms. Neither the country nor the director, Jaco Bouwer, have much horror experience under their belts. But critics have been impressed with Gaia’s story of a park ranger running afoul of survivalists and something else in the woods. Similar to recent movies like Annihilation, Sea Fever, and In The Earth, Gaia channels its horror from more microscopic sources. For a world still coping with a pandemic, it’s a likely indicator of where eco-horror will increasingly venture.
While on a routine mission into a dense forest, a park ranger injures herself on a crudely engineered trap. When two survivalists – a father and son – rescue her, she’s initially relieved. But as time passes, she becomes increasingly leery of the father’s paranoid philosophies. And somewhere outside their wood cabin, very real creatures lurk through the forest. Now desperate to return to civilization, the park ranger must navigate threats both inside and outside her sanctuary.
Gaia Blends Trippy Nightmares with Floral-Inspired Body Horror
By and large, Gaia joins other recent trippy, nightmarish horror movies like Annihilation, Sator, and Ben Wheatley’s eco-horror, In the Earth. Director Jaco Bouwer shows more interest in contrasting the beautiful forest imagery alongside jarring nightmare sequences. With an assist from Pierre-Henri Wicomb’s ominous score, Bouwer settles his movie into a consistently discomforting atmosphere. Though Gaia often relies a little to much on dream sequences, there’s no disputing the unsettling images that make their way onto the screen. Occasionally, when Bouwer opts for more conventional scares he proves more than capable of producing some white-knuckle scenes and jumps. Both a cabin invasion scene and the movie’s climax are standout moments.
While its creature effects are effectively frightening, its the movie’s subtle ‘infection’ scenes that are most unsettling.
Interestingly, Gaia joins In The Earth as this year’s second eco-horror movie to put fungal spores front row and center. But Gaia also recollects sci-fi horror Annihilation and other body horror movies. While its creature effects are effectively frightening it’s the movie’s subtle ‘infection’ scenes that are most unsettling. Seeing bits of flora poke out from Gabi’s skin may make some viewers uneasy. And witnesses entire bodies overtaken by plant life is some gruesome creativity one might not expect going into the movie.
Gaia Heavy on Atmosphere, A Little Light on Character
On one hand, Gaia effectively places you within a nightmare world characterized by disturbing imagery. Yet Tertius Kapp’s story lags behind the movie’s atmospheric vibes. That is, Gaia often doesn’t make the most sense as some of its ideas feel underdeveloped. Keep in mind, Kapp’s ambiguity around the eco-threats in the primordial forest enhance the movie’s creepiness. It’s an unknown that plays much better than had Kapp opted for heavy exposition. Much of Barend’s religious musings about our technological subservience, however, are too vague. While Gaia fleshes Barend out a little more than the movie’s other characters, he stills like something of a Unabomber-spouting prophet of doom. Both Both Gabi and Stefan suffer somewhat under-defined as characters. In particular, Gabi rarely demonstrates clear motivations often just reacting to what’s going on around her.
…Kapp’s ambiguity around the eco-threats in the primordial forest enhance the movie’s creepiness. It’s an unknown that plays much better than had Kapp opted for heavy exposition.
Still all the performances are strong. As Barend, Carel Nel stands out offering a character who’s at once clearly off-kilter but not immediately dangerous. Nel’s subtle and layered delivery allows audiences to wonder how dangerous his character might in fact be. And when Berand unhinges it doesn’t feel sudden or a incongruent with the movie’s storytelling. In a mostly non-verbal role, Alex van Dyk does fine capturing the mix of childish naivety and sexual awakening of his character. Likewise, Monique Rockman convinces as a character who seems perpetually in over hear head. Poor Anthony Oseyemi exits Gaia pretty quickly.
Gaia a Disturbing Psychological Eco-Horror Experience
Thought its narrative and characters don’t always stand up to scrutiny, Gaia still works as a psychologically disturbing movie experience. From its ‘floral’ body horror to its jarring dream sequences, Gaia borders closely on surrealist horror. Bouwer includes some traditionally scary horrors, including the aforementioned cabin invasion. But Gaia focuses more on aesthetics and atmosphere to mimic the experience of a nightmare. And this is where the South African eco-horror gets under your skin.