June 26, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Jaco Bouwer
Some language in Afrikaans with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in Cape Town, South Africa, the horror film “Gaia” features a cast of four people: two white people as wilderness dwellers and one Asian and one black person as forest rangers.
Culture Clash: While out patrolling, two forest rangers get separated, and one of them is captured by two wilderness dwellers, who have an obsession with worshipping nature and have to fight off mysterious fungus creatures.
Culture Audience: “Gaia” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching “slow burn” horror films that have not-so-subtle messages about the dangers of disrespecting the environment.
“Gaia” is an intentionally creepy environmentalist film that’s dressed up as a horror movie. It’s intriguing enough for viewers who have the patience to tolerate slow-paced moments that dilute thrilling action scenes. “Gaia” (directed by Jaco Bouwer and written by Tertius Kapp) also has a few plot holes that could be explained away, if viewers are willing to believe that two forest rangers who disappear while on the job wouldn’t have a search and rescue team looking for them after a certain period of time.
That’s because there are only four people in this entire movie, which takes place and was filmed in Cape Town, South Africa: forest rangers Gabi (played by Monique Rockman) and Winston (played by Anthony Oseyemi) and wilderness dwellers Barend (played by Carel Nel) and his son Stefan (played by Alex van Dyk), who is in his late teens or early 20s. Gabi and Winston appear to be in their late 20s or early 30s.
In the beginning of the movie, Gabi and Winston are patrolling an unnamed area forest area by canoe. They’re using four drones, with one currently in the air. Gabi notices on her video monitor that a man covered in mud has briefly appeared on camera, and then the drone seems to stop operating. It’s implied that this mystery man has taken the drone.
Gabi immediately wants to go in the forest to find the drone. Winston is nervous and warns her: “People disappear in this forest.” Gabe brushes off Winston’s concerns and says of the people who have supposedly disappeared: “Oh come on, Winston. They were just crusty old hippies. They probably just moved on to their next squat.”
Winston reluctantly lets Gabi go into the forest by herself (nothing was going to stop her anyway) and tells her that she’s got one hour before he’ll come looking for her. Since this is a horror movie, it’s easy to predict what happens next: Gabi encounters danger in the woods. She gets caught in a booby trap that causes a wooden stake to be embedded in her left foot. And it turns out that the mud-covered mystery man is Barend, who set the trap and also destroyed the drone.
Gabi is captured by Barend and Stefan, who take her to their remote cabin in the woods. It’s soon clear that they’re not going to kill her, but they aren’t willing to let her go either. Barend treats Gabi’s foot wound and even lets her try to contact Winston by walkie talkie. However, the first time Gabi uses the walkie talkie to get help, she hears nothing but static.
The rest of the “Gaia” shows that this is no ordinary forest. There are pollen-like particles that float in the air that can cause certain mutations to anyone who inhales these particles. While Gabi’s foot is healing, she finds out that Barend and Stefan (who doesn’t talk much) have been living “off the grid” in this forest for several years.
Barend tells her that he used to be a scientist whose specialty was plant pathology. His wife Lily, who was Stefan’s mother, died 13 years ago and was a chemical engineer. Barend says cryptically, “After Lily died, I met her.”
Barend and Stefan, who are both emaciated, engage in a ritual of covering themselves with mud when they go outside to worship nature. There’s one tree in particular that is the object of their obsession. Is this a tree of life or a tree of death and destruction? The answer is revealed in the movie.
During the course of the movie, viewers find out that Barend has a particular hatred of technology and modern inventions. One day, he sees Gabi showing Stefan her cell phone and photos that are on her phone, which does not get a signal in this dense forest. Barend destroys the cell phone in a rage as he shouts, “Keep your devilish devices away from us!”
It’s implied that Stefan is a virgin who is not used to interacting with women. Gabi uses her feminine charms not with the intention of completely seducing Stefan but to make him easier to manipulate. She also tells Stefan that he could meet a lot of girls if he lived outside the forest, but Stefan doesn’t seem interested. Instead, Stefan tells Gabi that Barend says that everyone in the outside world is doomed to die.
Barend and Stefan haven’t been completely by themselves in this forest. There are menacing fungus creatures that sometimes try to invade their cabin. These mutant creatures have arms and legs and can stand upright like humans. But they are also blind. Their attacks are the most suspenseful scenes in the movie, although some of the action stunts look choppy and could have been better choreographed to look more realistic.
However, there’s another horror in the movie that isn’t as fast-paced. Over time, Gabi notices that shrub-like plant buds are growing out of her arms and then other parts of her body. When she plucks off these buds, she bleeds like someone would bleed from a minor cut. And the fate of Winston is also shown in the movie. What happens to him isn’t much of a surprise.
“Gaia” has some memorably striking visual effects, and the actors give performances that are fairly good at sustaining interest in the story. But don’t expect “Gaia” to have a lot of character development, since very little is revealed about the lives that any of the movie’s characters had outside of the forest. And for a forest ranger, Gabi doesn’t seem to have a lot of basic survival skills.
Rather than offering clear explanations behind the mystery of the forest and the characters in the story, “Gaia” is more concerned with creating moods and letting the story’s message slowly reveal itself, much like that unusual tree in the forest eventually shows its purpose. “Gaia” is not an outstanding horror film, but it’s one that leaves a distinct impression that as powerful as humans think they are, nature can be much more powerful.
Decal released “Gaia” in select U.S. cinemas on June 18, 2021, and on digital and VOD on June 25, 2021.