A slow burn narrative allows for eco-horror Gaia to come into its ow, as well as taking advantage of some stunning visual storytelling. Jaco Bouwer’s film entrances you and does so much right that it makes you pay attention to it.
Injured forest ranger Gabi (Monique Rockman), on a routine mission, is saved by two off-the-grid survivalists Barend (Carel Nel) and Stefan (Alex van Dyk). Initially, a welcome rescue grows more suspicious as the son and his renegade father reveal a cultish devotion to the forest. But, then, when a strange being attacks their cabin, it is clear there is a far greater threat in this unrelenting wilderness.
Gaia takes its time to fully reveal its true horror intentions to its audience, starting with a hostage vibe as Gabi tries to recover and work out precisely what these two men are doing in the forest. Quickly you begin to fear for her, and Bouwer allows that tense level of threat rises within his audience until he and screenwriter Tertius Kapp show us the cult-like devotion to nature and the darkness that resides within those trees.
Bouwer takes advantage of our imagination, who doesn’t wonder what crawls or bumps around in the darkness, especially in such dense forests in the wilderness. So as darkness comes to Gabi, the mystery and anticipation rise. Captured in the background and blurs again, our imagination takes hold of us, and we create images that few filmmakers would be able to achieve. Such is the confidence of Bouwer of his film that he holds back until it is necessary to do so. Less confident directors would want us to see the creatures as soon as possible, here he pauses, and Gaia is all the better for that show of restraint.
The true star of Gaia, though, is its visuals, and while the creature design reminds of monsters from other films or even games, it remains hideously gorgeous. You are intrigued by it, and as nature tries to take a foothold on whoever it wants, our special effects and visual effects team are given a serious workout. A technical gem of a film, from the designs to cinematography and sound, you are enveloped at all times by Gaia, and when the film goes quiet, you become even more unnerved.
Jorrie van der Walt’s camera presents us with such a dense world that you almost sense that you can touch everything around you, that you can feel the dirt covering our characters. This immersive experience coupled with a direct and rather pointed message stays with you to become a memorable viewing experience.
The vagueness within the story allows for the air of mystery; we are not presented with a long monologue about why these creatures exist and why nature is doing what it is doing. Instead, it is fed slowly to Gabi as she learns about this new world. It again shows Bouwer and Kapp’s confidence that they know they can do this and not have it negatively affect their film. Their film is, at times, almost one that is mourning. Mourning for what we have done to nature and yet, at the same time, in mourning for if nature continues to do what it does here, for the human race.
For the aspects of Gaia’s script that does work, there are some missteps present as well. Barend is not as fleshed out as you would want, considering his pivotal role in the story. Other than our botanical cladded monsters, he is our main antagonist, and by not giving us more of his intentions or making him that bit more sinister. Add to this the somewhat awkward and frankly needless romantic angle the film tries to take with Stefan and Gabi, and we are left with at times a film that seemingly doesn’t trust itself enough to be more adventurous with the story, to make a bold point. Instead, it dithers just when it has its audience most interested.
This captivating and rather ambitious film ticks all of the sufficient boxes for audiences, and it is only the small details where it falters. As a horror that allows itself to almost be poetic, Gaia becomes a film that is well worth your time.
GAIA IS RELEASED IN CINEMAS ON 24th SEPTEMBER. WATCH ON ALTITUDE.FILM AND OTHER DIGITAL PLATFORMS FROM 27TH SEPTEMBER.
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