At first glance, it’s almost impossible to look at the creature designs in this South African horror fantasy and avoid making comparisons to the popular game. The last of us. Humans infected with spores in Gaia they bear more than a passing resemblance to clickers, right down to blindness and sound. Of many ways, Gaia it could exist within that same universe, before the apocalypse. However, it soon becomes clear that while it exists in that same genre space, this slow narrative prefers a different approach to eco-horror by creating a surprising assault on the senses. It is a visual narrative about the traditional or emotional, which makes for a very different and probably polarizing experience.
A routine surveillance mission in a primeval forest results in the separation of two rangers once their drone goes offline. Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) clearly expresses his reservations against the division, puzzled by the clear danger that lurks beyond the safety of his canoe. Your partner Gabi (Monique rockman) assures him that everything will be fine, however, and agrees to meet in an hour. Almost immediately, Gabi is caught in a trap and meets a father and son, Barend (Carel Nel) and Stefan (Alex van Dyk), living a survival lifestyle in the forest. The couple thrive on foraging and hunting, and they seem to have their own religion far removed from society. Gabi learns to trust them in her care, especially when she discovers a much bigger threat lurking in the area.
Directed by Jaco bouwer and written by Tertius Kapp, Gaia relies heavily on visual storytelling to convey depth and feeling. There is an almost abstract quality to the narrative as it slowly reveals the secrets of the forest. Dreamy jumps from scene to scene and accelerated biology montages on a macro level provide an almost tangible texture to this world. Close-ups of goose bumps erupting as cool air blows against it, or a slow sinking of the fingers into the cool, damp earth. An entire stage of fungal growth unfolds through time-lapse photography. Bouwer’s address and Jorrie van der WaltStunning cinematography builds this world through touch, sound and sight in ingenious and surprising ways.
At first, it seems clear that fungal spores are being released and in intentional retaliation against humanity for crimes committed against nature, most notably evidenced in a brief moment in which Barend shows apparent disdain for a plastic bag. it floats through its feeding place. The more Gabi knows Barend and her son, the more her religion paints a larger and more strange picture without fear of relying on yonic images. That’s before he gets truly psychedelic, moving toward a strange and timely third act. The horror gets twisted in places and leans towards some big but fleeting moments of body horror. Above all, however, Bouwer prefers elements of fantasy.
The allegory comes into focus more and more clearly the more Gaia shows his hand. Somehow that makes this lucid dream feel familiar and predictable. It doesn’t help that the creatures lurking in the woods resemble Clickers to an incredible degree or that this comes immediately after Ben Wheatley’s similar theme. On earth. What sets it apart from the rest is Bouwer’s masterful direction and added texture, so to speak, to a strictly visual and auditory medium. His folklore is made tactile in an impressive and innovative way. While the pace tends to tell in parts, the respectable lack of grip makes up for it. While not the most accessible type of narrative, nor entirely new, it draws you in with its astonishing sense of wonder and mythical world-building.
Gaia made its world premiere at SXSW and has been acquired for a summer release by Decal.