South African-made Gaia, is a surprisingly effective horror/thriller that combines disturbing images, accomplished filmmaking and a poignant ecological message to show what can be done with a modest budget.
We are introduced to our location for the film - a dense forest, through a beautiful drone shot that starts to disorientate us as it turns upside down. It’s revealed that the drone is controlled by forest ranger Gabi (Monique Rockman, hugely effective in her film debut) who is paddling down a river with her colleague Winston (Anthony Oseyemi). When the drone is smashed by a mysterious young man covered in dirt and sporting a loincloth, Gabi goes to investigate, and after getting injured is taken in by the man and his father. They are revealed to be off-the-grid survivalists and tell Gabi of an ancient god/spirit that lives under the forest and is starting to rise up against humankind. This is visualised by fungus growing on humans and creating fantastic looking monsters that threaten the cabin.
Gaia is a film of visuals, sometimes to a fault. There are probably one too many dream sequences where Gabi thinks fungus is growing on her and then has similar feelings after a classic shroom inspired trip. Gabi and the young survivalist also have a sexual tension that never gets anywhere, but maybe that’s a refreshing change. The father played brilliantly by Carel Nel, expertly conveys a scientist slowly driven mad, as he realises we are helpless in the face of forces beyond our comprehension. In a not too subtle shout out to our real climate crisis, director Jaco Bouwer wonderfully conveys our sense of helplessness in the face of disaster, with the panache of a much more experienced filmmaker. What more could you ask for from a feature film debut?
Gaia is released on digital platforms on September 27th.