★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Mother Earth just may have it in for us, according to the South African Eco-Horror showcase Gaia, which had its World Premiere at the SXSW film festival. It’s beautiful, quiet, creepy, and full of spores. (Cough! Cough!)
Directed by Jaco Bouwer
In an age where humans are wreaking havoc environmentally across the globe, perhaps Mother Earth will find a way to reclaim a balance that due to human activity has pushed the scales perhaps past the tipping point of recovery. Perhaps Gaia will find a little bit of payback. And perhaps your rooting interest here might not be in the nominal protagonists, but in the corrupting power of nature run amok. To be honest, it’s a bit of a draw, as presented in this movie, as Director Jaco Bouwer shuffles the antagonist deck a few times in Gaia, which will set up expectations, then shift them, and then shift them again.
Bouwer shot this film in the lush Tsitsikamma National Park in South Africa, and it is a stunning backdrop to shoot. When most people consider African forests, either the safari scrublands or deep jungles come to mind. This is a coastal temperate rainforest, and feels wholly unique, and it is how you are introduced to the movie, with a series of panoramic drone flyover flips of the dense forest, which will make a wonderful call back at the end of the film.
Into the forest go forest ranger Gabi (Monique Rockman) and her boss Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) who are navigating a river to recover recordings from wildlife cameras set up in the forest. When the new drone toy they are using runs into a man in the woods and gets knocked out, Gabi goes into the forest to retrieve it.
Waiting for her in the woods are a pair of feral men who nabbed her drone. The two men, skinny and wearing only home-made burlap shorts and slathered in mud, clearly have gone back to nature to the extreme, practically feral. They are gathering mushrooms and grubs, and have set a series of traps in the forest, for somebody or something.
Gabi, having foolishly ventured alone into the woods encounters somebody (or something) sneaking around in the forest. Is it the two men? As she backtracks away from the encounter, she runs smack into the crude trap, and gets maimed. Winston, goes looking for her and he gets lost in the attempt as night falls. Gabi stumbles into a cabin in the woods… never a good omen in a horror movie… and takes shelter there waiting for rescue.
The cabin of course, belongs to the hunter/gatherers. Barend (Carel Nel) and his quiet teenage son Stefan (Alex van Dyk) have been living a life free of technology in the forest. They have developed a curious relationship with the forest, and practice a nature Goddess based religion. Barend vehemently objects to the use of any technology, even using fire. He was a botanist before but the loss of his wife sent him into the woods with his son. They are kind enough to take her in and tend to her wounds, but there is still something uneasy about the men. Barend is a fanatic, and Stefan is sexually attracted to her.
They are not alone in the woods, however. This movie is full of fungi, mushrooms, and hordes of spores from the get go. These spores have been transforming humans into mushroom men, blind and violent and largely mindless. These humanoids are fantastic looking makeup jobs, and very original looking. These creatures stalk and attack them Gabi is beset with nightmares of becoming infected with fungal growths, until eventually she starts to show signs of illness.
Gaia is fighting back, and she is doing it with fungus.
The tension from this film shifts from how you perceive the characters in the story. Are Barend and Stefan noble or villainous? Is Gaia benevolent or malevolent? Are the mushroom men the symptom or the cause? How is it that Barend an Stefan aren’t overcome by the spores? What became of Winston? The hinge point arrives once Gabi’s quickly healing wound allows her to recover and make an attempt to go back to civilization.
It doesn’t go well.
But you do get answers.
This is a deserving entry for the prestigious SXSW festival. The characters are complex and interesting, and their story arcs are far from predictable. For a movie of modest means, the film looks fantastic, from the rustic costumes, to the National Geographic ready close up images of mushrooms in bloom, to the solid acting from all of the small ensemble. And, it manages to portray eco-horror without seemingly taking a strong side or preaching. The beauty of the forest, and even the multitude of fungi sometimes feels like it came out of 19th Century Edwardian “Age of the Fantastic” still life paintings. Bouwer has a portrait artist’s sense of framing shots, to be sure. Let it be said that this is art-house-horror done well. In many ways there are scenes reminiscent of Annihilation, it’s that well executed.
It is great to see another South African horror movie emerge through the film festival circuit. Last year, I had the opportunity to review Parable, courtesy of the New Orleans Horror Film Festival, and 8 (a.k.a. The Soul Collector), which ran the festival circuit in 2019 suggests that South Africa may be an emerging hotbed for quality horror films. Given the ability for these movies to move from festival to streaming, here’s hoping that these films get some broad exposure.
Gaia is not rated, but it certainly would merit an R for body horror, nudity, and sexual content… and some rather strange sexual content at that. I applaud a scene with falling fruit being used as a metaphor. You’ll know it when you see it.