South African horror film “Gaia” impressed me a lot with many disturbing moments to remember. Although the story, which is reminiscent of many other horror films ranging from “The Ruins” (2008) to “Annihilation” (2018), sometimes suffers from its rather thin narrative and broad characterization, these and other weak aspects in the film are mostly compensated by its undeniable visceral visual power coupled with simple but sharp environmental messages, and my mind is still haunted by what I witnessed from this curious piece of work early in this morning.
The movie, which was shot in the remote wild areas of the Tsitsikamma forest in South Africa, opens with two employees of South African forest service moving along a river in the forest. While Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) is casually rowing their boat, Gabi (Monique Rockman) handles a drone to check out the surrounding area, and we accordingly get an aerial shot which emphasizes how vast and remote the forest really is.
And then something unexpected happens. When the drone is looking around somewhere inside the forest, it comes across a mysterious figure, and then it is suddenly disconnected from Gabi’s remote-control panel. Although Winston suggests that they should let it go, Gabi is adamant about retrieving the drone, so she soon goes inside the forest for looking for the drone, while Winston is doing some routine stuffs in the meantime.
Of course, things do not go well for both Gabi and Winston. Not long after going inside the forest, Gabi comes to sense that she is not alone at all in the forest, and then she gets herself seriously injured by a booby trap. Hearing her scream from the distance, Winston instantly tries to find Gabi as soon as possible, but, no so surprisingly, he also finds himself lost in the forest, which comes to look more ominous than before as the day is being over with the darkening sky.
Meanwhile, Gabi manages to find an empty cabin where she can rest for a while and then take care of her injury, but then she encounters the two residents of the cabin: Barend (Carel Nel) and his adolescent son Stefan (Alex Van Dyk). It is apparent that Barend and Stefan have lived there for many years without any interference from the world outside, and Barend clearly does not welcome Gabi much, but he lets her stay in his cabin in addition to having her injury treated via a rather crude but effective way.
As Gabi comes to spend more time with Barend and his son, we get to know a bit more about him and his son. Before living the life of your average survivalist, Barend was a plant pathology expert, and the forest was a special place for him and his wife, who, according to him, died due to bone cancer shortly giving birth to their son. In case of Stefan, this young lad is mostly silent, but he soon becomes curious about Gabi, and she comes to take pity on him as discerning how much his world has been limited by his father, who is more like a zealous cult leader instead of a protective father.
However, as already shown to us, Barend and his son are not bound together via a mere belief. There is indeed something scary and mysterious within the forest, and we accordingly get a series of uncanny scenes including the recurring one involved with a big old tree glowing with ominous bloody light every night. While frequently having vividly disconcerting dreams, Gabi is also quite unnerved to behold what Barend and his son have to deal with everyday, but it looks like there is no way out for her.
Once its origin of terror is fully revealed during its second half, the screenplay by Tertius Kapp comes to lose some of its narrative momentum, but the movie keeps serving us striking moments of awe and terror under the competent direction of director Jaco Bouwer. Besides deftly establishing a subtle aura of menace around the screen, Bouwer and his crew members including cinematographer Jorrie van der Walt did a fantastic job of bringing considerable realism and verisimilitude to the film, and what the movie comes to unleash on that solid ground is often quite mesmerizing to say the least. According to the IMDB trivia, Bouwer and his production team had lots of difficulties besides the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic when they shot their movie in the Tsitsikamma forest, but the overall result is still top-notch in technical aspects, and you will come to admire more of their efforts behind the screen.
The main performers in the film dutifully fill their respective roles. While Moonique Rockman functions as our surrogate heroine, Carel Nel and Alex Van Dyk are quite convincing in their shabby feral appearance, and they and Rockman generate enough dramatic tension to engage us despite their predictable character arcs along the story. Although his role is your average token supporting character, Anthony Oseyemi holds his own small spot well, and you may feel sorry for his character even though you can instantly discern his character’s end coming from the distance.
Overall, “Gaia” may require some patience from you in the beginning, but it will be a rewarding experience especially if you are looking for something different. Like any good horror films, it is packed with mood and details to be savored, and you may come to reflect a bit on the humanity’s problematic current relationship with the nature on the Earth.