The Mystery of Gaia

A forest is a mysterious place, and some think it holds the keys to survival. In Jaco Bouwer’s Gaia, the secrets of the forest take root in the very humans who ravage it.

Gabi and Winston (Monique Rockman and Anthony Oseyemi) are forest rangers on a survey run deep in the South African forest. When one of their drones is damaged by forest dwellers Stefan (Alex van Dyk) and his father Barend (Carel Nel), Gabi heads into the thick foliage to look for it even though Winston warns against it. An injury sidetracks Gabi, and she finds a cabin in the dense forest to take refuge, soon learning it houses the wild men and their devotion to a deity they call the “Mother of Creation and Destruction.” There are also human hybrids afoot, victims of a strange fungus that rules the forest. The dangers of the wild are real, and Gabi must find Winston and a way out before nature gets the best of them all.

Barend (Nel), Gabi (Rockman)and Stefan (van Dyk). Photo courtesy of Elevation Pictures.

Gaia is a fascinating eco-horror with not so much a message but mythology. This father and son duo rejects modern society and pays reverence to a fungal forest spirit, living out their two-person cult lives in a hidden forest nook. They fight off fungal-human hybrids (who were a mystery unto themselves since you wonder who they once were), live off the land in secrecy until the forest rangers arrive.

It’s interesting to see the colonizer aspect here, much like Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth. In Gaia, Barend, in the role of colonizer, rejects the industrialization and progress his ancestors have brought to the natural world. Is it the middle-class guilt, a true rejection of the damage humans have done to the Earth, or madness and mourning that puts Barend and his son in the bosom of nature? We learn bit by bit about his rejection of civilization and the loss that drove him to the land; however, as with all white explorers, it was also his choice to reject city life after a tragedy. While he pays respect to the forest, his choice is a luxury many don’t have.  

Generally speaking, though, the narrative of going back to the Earth is quite literal here, with a god-like fungus taking us back to roots and the dirt, a primordial synergy that we as humans will never escape. There’s also an old-testament vibe, with sacrifice and plagues that threaten civilization, making the film more of a preachy reminder from characters who jumped the ship of the modern world they contributed to as it sinks.

The creature design was wonderfully weird, and Clinton Smith, a prosthetics designer with a very long resume, created really gorgeous makeup for the victims of the fungus. What stood out the most in Gaia was the cinematography by Jorrie van der Walt. Interesting focus-pulling, aerial drone shots and photographic dream sequences that look like fashion editorials or art installations made the visual experience worth your time.

Look to Gaia, streaming on demand now, for an atmospheric fable about the Earth taking the reigns back from those driving her to ruin.

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