Eco-horror movies come in multiple varieties, but the core theme often boils down to Mother Earth fighting back against the pestilence known as humanity. It’s hard not to root for her given our poor stewardship of the planet, and that concept can make for fascinating fodder for thrills and conversations. Gaia is a new entry into the subgenre, but while it delivers memorable visuals and creature feature thrills it stumbles with its conversation.
Gabi (Monique Rockman) is a park ranger helping to monitor a large forested area in South Africa alongside her coworker Winston (Anthony Oseyemi), but when the two get separated she finds a world of horror waiting in the darkness. Wounded and bleeding, Gabi is taken in by a father and son pair who’ve been living in the forest for an unknown period of time. Barend (Carel Nel) and his son Stefan (Alex van Dyk) believe god is growing beneath their feet as part of an extensive series of roots, plants, and fungi-fied humans — people transformed by god’s spore-like transmissions and turned into homicidal flora — and her intention is to reclaim the earth from the people who’ve infected it. Barend’s belief is near fanatical while Stefan is too young to have known anything of the outside world, and Gabi is quickly left unsure which poses the greater threat — god or man.
Gaia is an undeniably gorgeous experience as director Jaco Bouwer immerses viewers into a world shifting endlessly between beauty and terror. For all the interesting ideas in Tertius Kapp‘s script, though, the film suffers from a lack of clarity and purpose with its characters. Mysteries and unanswered questions are always welcome, and Kapp does put forth some intriguing ideas, but it’s left feeling like a jumble of thoughts rather than a pointed commentary or story.
Gabi’s motivations in particular are unclear and unsatisfying, and it starts with decisions made without justification. Winston jokes early on about her getting lost like a typically dumb character in a horror film, and then she proceeds to do just that. It’s sadly fitting as Winston, the film’s sole Black character, is the first to die fulfilling an entirely different horror movie stereotype. Her actions grow no more logical from there, and her near-instant attraction to Stefan — as mother, lover, both? — turns her into a character with even less individual agency beyond “female.”
Stefan’s attraction to her is understandable as she’s the only woman he’s known outside of a mother who died when he was a small child, but her response comes with zero understanding of her character. Add in a seemingly endless series of dream sequences — short but repetitive in nature — and Gabi becomes even less of a person and more of a placeholder for events. Kapp’s world has a slight biblical feel to it of the Christian variety with Stefan and Gabi being stand-ins for an Adam and Eve of sorts, but Gaia leaves such nods hanging as referential window dressing rather than substantial elements.
Barend ultimately stands as the film’s most fully realized character, for both better and worse, but he’s saddled all the more with untethered biblical nods. He’s a man whose grief over his dead wife has transformed into a fervor towards appeasing the “god” in his midst, and like a gaunt Abraham, he moves from proselytizing to believing he needs to sacrifice his only son. Barend’s surroundings are real, as is his desire to protect his world from outsiders, but he’s gone mad all the same. Nel convinces with his character as much through his eyes as through his words, and it makes for a strong performance from an ultimately cliched character.
The film works far better in its more visceral, horror-friendly moments with both the filmmaking and visual effects delivering some intense sequences. The transformed humans stalk the woods blending seamlessly into the more traditional fauna around them, and they’re menacing creatures with a cabin invasion set-piece being particularly effective. Even the calmer moments work to disturb as flowers and fungus sprout from human flesh resulting in some unsettling, topiary-themed body horror. Pierre-Henri Wicomb‘s hauntingly natural score adds to the feeling that the world is coming alive around us — and that it has plans for our misdeeds.
Gaia succeeds in creating a world and immersing viewers in it, but like humanity and nature, the elements that work are constantly at odds with those that don’t. It’s never dull, thanks as much to its visuals as to its running time, and marks Bouwer as a filmmaker to watch moving forward. Fans of eco-horror will want to give it a spin, but when it leaves you wanting more I suggest you seek out and devour John Skipp and Craig Spector’s The Bridge. The novel explores similar ideas to far greater effect while delivering beautiful grotesqueries, characters with depth and purpose, and an argument towards Mother Earth’s necessary triumph over humankind.