[SXSW Review] 'Gaia' Plants a Seed of Folky Eco-Terror and Body Horror for a Uniquely Disturbing Experience
“Nature is scripture…”
…In Greek mythology, the word “Gaia” refers to what is essentially the ancestral mother of all life, the Earth herself. Director Jaco Bouwer’s Gaia, having just made its World Premiere at SXSW, updates the myth surrounding the Greek goddess for a contemporary nightmare that is a fierce shredding of our technological society, and the way human beings mistreat the greatest gift of all, life itself.
Written by Tertius Kapp, Gaia is an eco-horror terror that follows a couple of park rangers, Gabi (Monique Rockman) and Winston (Anthony Oseyemi), out on a surveillance mission in a forest long abandoned by the world and teeming with fungal life. After an incident separates them, Gabi encounters Barend (Carel Nel) and his son, Stefan (Alex van Dyk), who have been living out in the forest ever since the death of Barend’s wife. As strange as Gabi thinks they are, with their worship of mother nature and their hip new style of covering themselves in mud, they are nothing compared to the strange creatures which roam the woods outside.
Opening on an eerie overhead shot of the lush, green forest and coupled with Pierre-Henri Wicomb’s spine-tingling score, Gaia immediately sets the viewer on edge. This is a film that lures you in with picturesque cinematography from Jorrie van der Walt and then lashes out unexpectedly with intense violence and squirmy body horror.
The more we fail the earth and treat nature like the garbage can at the end of the driveway, and the more grave scientist’s warnings of global warming become, the more we’re beginning to see earthy horror films like Gaia, which present a chilling theory: what if Mother Nature wakes up one day and says you know what? Fuck ‘em.
And there is no fury like the fury of mother nature.
Throughout the first act of Gaia, the film plays like an old-fashioned creature feature. People lost in the woods. Strange croaks and chitters echoing in the air around them, made stranger by Tim Pringle’s hair-raising sound design. Bouwer allows us just enough of a glimpse of whatever is roaming the forest to set the viewer’s mind at full freakout. Thankfully, Gaia lives up to expectations in that department, delivering monstrous, fungal creatures and some knockout makeup effects that will inspire comparisons to the unnerving monsters of hit videogame The Last of Us. None of us wants to become a zombie. But one look at these things is a knowledge that to become one is the worst fate any human could suffer.
The uniqueness of Bouwer’s film though is that what starts as a somewhat standard but more than effective creature feature becomes a folky body horror flick that plants a seed of warring philosophies in Gabi and Barend, science vs nature, then slowly grows like a root underneath the skin, and all we can do is wait for it to pop out in a gush of blood and expose itself.
“Every day, the human habitat resembles more closely a cage,” hisses Barend at one point.
With Gabi wounded, Winston lost and a bunch of pissed off fungus monsters out to get her, she is forced to adapt to Barend and his son’s odd way of life. Barend was once himself a man of science, but has since discarded the societal world for something more primal and in touch with what he considers to be the goddess of the Earth resting beneath them. As she forms a connection with Stefan, Barend doesn’t see a woman trying to take his son, but the world he has left trying to reclaim the son he has tried to protect from it. Gaia starts off hot but slows down to a creepy crawl once the focus turns to this tense dynamic between the three, but both Rockman and Nel bring an intensity to their roles that pulls you to the edge of your seat.
Time and time again, Gaia seems to be asking, who is the real monster here? The things outside? Barend? Or Gabi?
The answer to that is debatable, but what is clear is that Gaia is a film that knows how to crawl under the skin and make you itch. Gaia quite literally weaponizes the Earth, employing moments of fungal body horror that are as cringe-inducing as it gets. While it’s not something we see often in the genre, this sort of body horror gone green is incredibly effective, touching on that daunting fear of our bodies turning against us, a betrayal by the one thing we can’t go on without, the way humanity has betrayed Mother Earth. The horror of Gaia will make your skin crawl. You’ll want to take a scalding hot shower after to wash away the itchy feeling it leaves you with, and even then, that might not be enough.
Oddly enough, though, it might also leave you just a touch horny.
In keeping with the Folk Horror side of things, Gaia is a film that indulges in our physical connection to the Earth. A beacon of life, the Earth is itself like a womb, and you cannot have birth without sex—at least, not before science—and so just when you think Gaia can’t get any more strange or uncomfortable, it becomes a trippy, vaguely erotic experience in which the Earth invades the flesh and vice versa. At times, Gaia is like if the tree from Evil Dead made a movie indulging in its fantasies, and yes, it’s as weird and unsettling as that sounds. The longer Gabi lives in the woods, the more her constant—sometimes too persistent—nightmares mix flesh with the Earth and fill her with a longing to connect more deeply to her surroundings. The central theme here is all about how humanity is fucking the Earth, and so I suppose it only makes sense that Gaia visualizes actual fucking of the Earth. That probably sounds pretty ridiculous, and it is, but Bouwer’s confident direction brings a strange and terrifying beauty to the more sexualized nature of the film for an experience that is ultimately unforgettable.
At times shocking and utterly breathtaking, Gaia is a film meant for the adventurous viewer who likes a little trippy weirdness in their horror. I promise you, Gaia gets real weird, real fast. Some are going to find themselves lost in the trees once the film shifts focus from monsters in the woods to a more philosophical terror, but for those willing to patiently wait for the seed at the center of the film to grow, the payoff is one that will leave you in awe.
Like many Folk Horror films, Gaia leaves you with a sense of maybe not quite understanding the higher purpose of the premise, but with enough knowledge to know…don’t mess with Mother Nature. You don’t want none of that vengeful streak.
By Matt Konopka
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