Gaia, which premiered at SXSW yesterday, is a frightening voice from the bowels of the Earth promising to take back what is hers one way or another.
As far as eco-horror goes, I’m not always as invested as I think I should be. There have been some absolute bangers, namely, the guilty pleasure found footage film The Bay and indy triumph They Remain, which freaked me out, but most of them fall flat by and large. Jaco Bouwer’s Gaia is neither dull nor boring. It is visually impressive with one of the single best creatures both conceptually and visually I have ever seen and thoughtful. Quality performances and a compelling soundtrack round out a gorgeous and intense battle with Earth herself.
A forest ranger and her boss lose their way, and she finds herself injured in a cabin. Father and so Barend and Stefan are extreme survivalists living in the forest. They have a spirituality and agenda all their own. The longer Gabi spends with them, the more she becomes convinced there is something in the primordial forest that is older and more powerful than humans.
Bouwer’s film is lush and wild. Sumptuous shots of a vast vista show just how vulnerable and insignificant we are. The forest, which looks like the land that time forgot, is beautiful. It isn’t that far-fetched to believe it has a mind of its own and is very pissed. Cinematographer Jorrie van der Walt has an eye for capturing the untamed power of the Tsitsikamma forest, South Africa, where the film was shot. Home to the southernmost elephant population and some argue the last remaining one; the forest is alive and intelligent. It comes through in sweeping ariel shots and close-up angles that you could swear you see the forest heaving and sighing.
With elements of fantasy, body, and eco-horror, it will invoke similar feelings as Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Thanks to a fantastic soundtrack by Pierre-Henri Wicomb and an exciting sound design by Tim Pringle, the forest and the beasts that call it home come alive. The creature sounds like a mix between a prehistoric dinosaur and a very alien insectile race. You see the creature early in a glimpse, but it’s enough to know there is something very wrong or very right depending on your point of view. That is the genius behind Clinton Smith’s prosthetic work. The creatures are so organic the textures ooze off the screen.
Next to The Birch, which has one of the single most creative creatures ever, Gaia’s beasts are tops. They are terrifying and impressive. It looks and moves like nothing you have ever seen. Fluid and smooth, it spreads through the forest more than it jerks. That elastic liquidity is poetry in motion. This is a sophisticated creature firmly rooted in nature. It is singularly unique and breathtakingly beautiful.
Pacing is a curiosity as the film shows its cards in the first twenty-five minutes but manages to hold onto the tension throughout. Even though you see the creature early, the invasive strangeness and incessant guttural cries from the forest itself keep the tension high. It is a tightrope walk to allow a film to breathe while maintaining that level of dread. Bouwer manages to do both. In lesser hands, Gaia could have felt gimmicky or heavy-handed. Instead, it just resonates as significant.
The tiny capable cast does some heavy lifting with blazing speeches almost entirely in melodic Africaans and silent emotiveness. Barend, played by Carel Nel(Raised By Wolves), is so lovingly devoted to the forest his passion singes every scene as if you are flying too close to the sun. Interestingly, Ridley Scott’s Kepler-22b, where Raised by Wolves takes place, could easily result from Gaia’s world. Barend is a true believer, who you can’t look away from. Alex Van Dyk is Barend’s nearly mute son Stefan. He wrings fear, frustration, and resolute acceptance out of early word and nuanced glance. Monique Rockman’s Gabi is naive and patronizing in the way only the privileged can be. She stands in obstinant opposition to the men despite all she is seeing.
Reliance on the dream sequence plot device works well in some cases, making everything feel like a nonlinear lucid dream, but other times is intrusive. It’s a minor complaint in an otherwise spectacular horror film that could be digested for days after viewing.
There is an oppressive inevitability about Gaia present in the best Weird stories. As if whatever is happening has happened before and will happen again. It is beyond our comprehension and beyond our abilities to fight. The ending is oddly moving and deeply scary in a way that feels very real in our fragile world. Be sure to watch through the closing frame as Bouwer has one final surprise.
Gaia will be released in the US on June 18th, 2021.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.