Carel Nel in Gaia (2021) - South African horror film from SXSW 2021

SXSW 2021 – Gaia (2021) Review

Eco-themed horror Gaia (2021) puts its tiny budget to good use. It’s scary when it needs to be, and with a deftly sketched plot beating in its heart, you’re likely to fall for its mystery.

If Gaia (2021) needed an establishing description of its context, that certainly would be how tech-savvy modern humans butcher nature piece by piece. Indeed, we like to assume a wholesome conquest of the planet. Lamentably that means the vast forests chopped, and landscapes transformed as we ravaged and excavated the planet. Only today we notice the big picture though. Humanity eventually arrives at a miserable point of having dealt irreversible damages. And we seem to be keener to copy the pattern on Mars rather than try to make things right here.

A foreboding vision that our days are counted naturally finds its seeds sprouting in horror movies. In some cases, nature fights back, claiming its crown. Although that’s quite some setting to delve into, horror experts were rather futile so far. Eli Roth’s exercise in Amazon-set human-meat-pulp savagery in The Green Inferno (2013) was nearly the peak of tackling the environmental concerns. Needless to say, it’s not exactly the Mount Everest of thoughtful filmmaking, meanwhile nature has very little to say in the dispute.

A shot through brambles in South African horror film Gaia (2021)

Thankfully, Gaia (2021), director Jaco Bouwer’s entry in this year’s SXSW festival brings a perspective far richer than Greenpeace corps being slaughtered by indigenous people of the Amazon.

A couple of forest rangers – Gabi (Monique Rockman) and Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) – go on a routine drone scan of the forest. That opens doors for DP Jorrie van der Walt who captures an endless mosaic of lush treetops with a hypnotizing camera maneuver, similarly to what Ari Aster utilized in Midsommar (2019). An establishing shot such as this instantly sets an ominous mood for any abomination that’s looming ahead of us.

Anyway, the mission doesn’t go as planned, because two mysterious men snag the flying equipment. Although Winston warns his colleague about the dangers of the forest, Gabi sets out to find the drone. When her leg’s crushed in a leaves-covered trap, the girl’s suddenly at the mercy of the two men she’s been trying to locate.

Carel Nel starring in environmental horror Gaia (2021)

These two gentlemen are Barend (Carel Nel) and his son, Stefan (Alex van Dyk). Barend was once a renowned bioscientist who left the progress-obsessed world after his wife died. Now, Barend and Stefan live in the forest, trying to avoid mysterious creatures who live in the dark. Furthermore, they’re servants of a woods-ruling goddess, Gaia.

The forest-God idea played out quite well in the past. Recall Netflix Originals – Apostle (2018) and The Ritual (2017). Both found their protagonists at the mercy of eco-evil forces, with some serious cult-theme game going on as well. Yet no matter how well that’s been executed in either of the films – and it’s admittedly pretty solid – Gaia (2021) pushes the envelope more profoundly.

The difference stems from the form of that connection between men and fairytale beings. Barend isn’t a menacing antagonist who kills people in order to sacrifice the goddess. There’s no cult, no rituals, no wicked belief that fuels him, and most importantly – no arch-villain end game. On the contrary, there’s not even a viable, long-term interest – neither for him nor his son – to live in this wooden shack and deal with the spore creatures.

So why a purposeless guy’s any better than badass horror cults?

As time passes, Barend’s character actually grows to become Gaia’s (2021) tragic epicenter – a broken man on the verge of insanity, who clings onto a dream that’s inevitably closing to an end. What’s worse, he drags his only offspring, Stefan, into this mess. Despite the moral turpitude that the character cannot be denied, there’s a degree of mercy we, as audience, employ towards him.

Carel Nel’s performance captures the moral ambiguity of Barend. It’s a character who is closer to Paul Bettany’s quietly disturbing take on Ted Kaczynski in Unabomber (2017) rather than a wicked cult leader. His darker, nihilistic side is seen through the power of control he executes over Stefan. That also becomes a bone of contention between him and Gabi.

Monique Rockman counters Nel with a role that’s more withdrawn and contemplative. Even though the actress stays in the shadows of Nel and van Dyk, she’s a necessary piece of the puzzle for the director to find the right tone in Gaia (2021). Rockman brings necessary fragility to the world dominated by nature and men who want to control it.

Anthony Oseyemi starring in Gaia (2021)

Since men aren’t the main source of fear, there had to be a far more disturbing evil to face in Gaia (2021). Jaco Bouwer sets up the horrifying premise very early in the film when Gabi notices a humanoid figure in the bushes. Just a few minutes later, the threat’s embodied by a creature that’s grotesquely festooned with colorful spores, screeching and looming from the dark. If you played The Last of Us, you’ll know the drill.

Bouwer’s concept to weaponize the spores never ceases to crash against a glass ceiling of his own creativity. Massively drawing from the natural characteristics of spores, the deadly system soaks life and feeds off it. Sprouts, fungi, and plants grow on the skin and tear apart limbs in a slow, painful way. Body horror’s in full swing here, with analogies to Annihilation (2018), as well as Hannibal (2013-2015) series too.

Whenever story-generated creepiness crawls in, Gaia (2021) really benefits from filming on location in Tsitsikamma. Jorrie van der Walt’s shots reflect the overwhelming complexity of the forest, meanwhile details such as the changing screen ratio help to echo the feelings our characters deal with. The DP knew exactly when the film needs to operate with hand-held effects or where’s the sweet spot for the more meditative side of the film. Also, composer Pierri-Henri Wicomb’s score fits the uneasy tone of Gaia (2021). At times, its climatic ambient morphs into a terrifying sound design, matched by the howling and shrieking that scares capably.

Corpse covered in plants and fungi in Gaia (2021)

Considering the whole story, the menacing torment tagged made-by-nature might be the film’s most essential metaphor. Nature finds its ways to deal with oppressors, but it interestingly becomes indifferent to those who praise it too. There’s no maleficent force there, no purposeful annihilation. At the same time, director Jaco Bouwer refuses to take the moral high ground, pompously showing people who destroy nature. Therein lies the meticulous – and innovative – plot structure of Gaia (2021). Notwithstanding the behavior towards it, people are always just visitors.

Aside from that, Bouwer also emphasizes the resilience of the environment we destroy, because it always finds a way to fight back. The strength of this delicate system lies in its powers of adaptability – a concept often explored in sci-fi films. To conclude his eco-horror, just seconds before the credits roll, Bouwer serves a conclusion that not only leaves the story open for interpretation but also adds another, pandemic-timely level of importance too. And that’s also why Gaia (2021) hits you right in the most uncomfortable spot – metaphors are sometimes quite literal here.

Gaia (2021)

Reverse Rating: 2.5/10

Director: Jaco Bouwer

Writer: Tertius Kapp

Starring: Monique Rockman, Anthony Oseyemi, Carel Nel, Alex van Dyk,

Cinematography: Jorrie van der Walt

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