Like the best horror movies, “Gaia” is filled with imagery that is simultaneously horrifying and morbidly beautiful; disgusting, but impossible to tear your gaze from. I’m thinking primarily of a scene relatively early in director Jaco Bouwer’s feature film debut where the protagonist, a forest ranger named Gabi (Monique Rockman), finds a body slumped at the base of a tree. The body is clearly human, but only just so; a colorful variety of fungi and plants sprouting from the skin conceal almost all of its features.
“Gaia” is brimming with stunning visuals like this, but the ecological themes of this experimental horror movie aren’t quite up to par with them. The story revolves around Gabi, who is separated from her partner (Winston, played by Anthony Oseyemi, who is the film’s lone Black character, if you’d like a hint about his fate) and injured while on a routine trip through a South African forest. She is recovered by Barend (Carel Nel) and Stefan (Alex van Dyk), a father and son duo who have been living away from the rest of human civilization in the middle of the woods. But it soon becomes clear that there is a danger lurking out in the forest, and that Barend and Stefan’s devotion to their natural surroundings isn’t exactly, well, natural.
For a film with a story and themes that aren’t typical, the characterizations frustratingly are. Stefan is fascinated with Gabi, the only link he has to a world that he has never experienced. Gabi, in turn, forms a bond with Stefan, and a desire to remove him from his home and his fanatical father so he can experience what the rest of the world has to offer—even though every instinct should be screaming at her to get out of there as fast as possible (the inkling of a potential romance between them feels particularly uncomfortable). And Barend is frightening and unpredictable, willing to place his devotion to their natural surroundings above all connections to the human world, even his son. The struggle that takes place between Gabi and Barend, and through them, civilization and nature, is interesting, but Bouwer and writer Tertius Kapp don’t really commit to one side, or to a clear message. Humanity is cruel, especially to the planet that gives them life, but so is nature, and the latter bites back with a vengeance. The presence of another malevolent entity in the forest (one that looks and sounds so much like the zombies in “The Last of Us” video games it’s hard to imagine that the resemblance is a mere coincidence) could have been scary, but its purpose isn’t very clear, and its addition feels more like a distraction from the more tense moments between the three human characters.
But “Gaia,” filmed on location in South Africa, is gorgeous to look at, and the scenes that whisk us from reality into a sort of dream state are the film’s most mesmerizing. The visual effects call to mind those in “Annihilation,” another movie in which a beautiful natural environment concealed something sinister. While “Gaia” isn’t exactly scary, Bouwer does maintain a creepy feeling, aided in large part by visuals that make your skin crawl. With a stronger script and clearer messaging, “Gaia”—the first film acquired under Neon and Bleecker Street’s new label Decal—could have been something really spectacular. But while it may not have been for me, fans of eco-horror will likely find a lot to dig into here.
“Gaia” is now playing in select theaters, and will be released on demand on June 25. Runtime: 96 minutes. Rated R.
Media review screener courtesy NEON.