Movie Review: Gaia

Gaia is another name for Mother Nature, a mythological ancestral giver of life. It’s also the title of a local horror thriller from Rage writer-director team Tertius Kapp (Griekwastad) and Jaco Bouwer (Die Spreeus). Taking an ecological slant, Gaia serves as a timely commentary on man versus nature. During the lockdown, nature had a chance to re-generate and in a similar bent, Gaia examines nature’s enduring ability to thrive in the absence of human influence and intervention. Interrupted by the pandemic, this existential tension translates to the performances.

During a routine upstream information-gathering mission into the deepest reaches of a forest region, two rangers discover someone or something is tampering with their observation units. Disembarking the boat to take a closer look, Gabi injures herself. When two survivalists rescue her and take her into their cabin in the woods, their true intentions become clearer as the primordial forest begins to take root in their thoughts and flesh.

Gaia stars Monique Rockman, an up-and-coming actor who continues to impress after a fierce performance in Nommer 37. A bold and unflinching performance, her point-of-view gives the film’s slow-creeping immersion its in. No stranger to horrors or thrillers, Carel Nel is perfectly cast as Barend, a less romantic Captain Fantastic type whose ambitions have taken on a spiritual dimension. Leaning into the self-deluded and muddy performance, he’s utterly convincing. They’re both supported by Alex van Dyk as a strong quiet type in Stefan, the impressionable innocent whose soul is caught in the balance. Channeling a similar energy to his performances in The Harvesters and Griekwastad, his screen presence adds enigma. Rounding off the intimate ensemble is the charming Anthony Oseyemi in a key role.

This stylish horror thriller starts off like a blend of Deliverance and Predator. Travelling up a river and encountering seemingly dangerous off-the-grid folk, there are similarities as nature and stranger danger threaten the explorers. Then, an indistinct and translucent forest being recalls mercenaries being picked off in the jungle setting of Predator. While these classic thrillers usher Gaia in, it’s actually much more elegant and cerebral than initially anticipated.

gaia 2021

“Guys, I’d love to stay and chat but…”

Often compared with the video game The Last of Us, this gritty and surreal horror thriller takes on a more claustrophobic feel as the forest blooms and the cabin’s walls close in. Gaia latches onto its earnest performances, allowing the unsettling forming, storming and norming to take place without forcing matters. Each of the characters see-saw, allowing the uncertainty of the unusual situation to create a slow-burning tension. Toying with expectations, Bouwer keeps a degree of complexity to the dramatic standoff from introducing the would-be assailants to disrupting equilibrium.

Gaia could benefit from a greater emotional connection with the characters. While the atmosphere and power dynamics shift to create uneasiness, the characters remain wispy, existing purely as story devices. As a body horror, it’s ironic that the characters seem to be skin deep. This helps cultivate some mystery but being so loosely drawn, it’s difficult to be fully immersed in the world of Gaia. The actors are convincing enough to ground the storytelling but wrestle with characters who are not layered enough to seem fully formed. Without enough identification points, back story or resonance, the undertow isn’t felt as acutely. This perceived emotional distance limits the suspense and our interest or care.

What Gaia lacks in connection, it makes up for with spellbinding fantasy visuals. A sharp edit keeps the pace upbeat as it swirls between the real and unreal, creating a new reality where both worlds seem to co-exist. While the award-winning cinematography keeps a healthy balance and flow between the confined and wide open spaces. Moving from eerie depictions of the primordial forest to lucid symbolic dreams, the haunting sights and sounds reverberate.

Testament to excellent make up, old school as well as modern visual effects, there’s a seamless blend to the visual styling and imaginative world of Gaia. Steering away from becoming over-reliant on visual wizardry, the ecological horror thriller keeps a good balance, using its magical Tsitsikamma forest location and embroidering rather than manufacturing shots. This grotesque and organic ebb-and-flow between the real and fabricated is reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ.

Gaia starts with adventure, pushing off some classic film concepts before becoming embroiled in an eerie folk horror conversion against the backdrop of an agitated Mother Nature. An atmospheric and visually-captivating eco horror thriller, its solid performances help anchor the slow-burning and surreal drama as the haunting predicament and suspenseful outcome of these invaders comes full circle. While it may seem just out-of-reach, the swirling enigma and prickly motivations compel Gaia to its skin-crawling conclusion.

The bottom line: Surreal

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