The great thing about horror is it can come from anywhere. Sure, we’re familiar with gore, monsters, and murderers, but truly anything can scare you or kill you. Case in point, the burgeoning genre of eco-horror, which makes it very clear that the world we live in right now will eventually kill us all due to climate change. You can now add a must-see film to that genre: Gaia, which just had its world premiere at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.
Gaia joins the ranks of other eco-horror films which include titles like Annihilation, The Happening, The Ruins, In the Earth, and more. It starts off ultra simple; We meet park rangers Gabi and Winston (Monique Rockman and Anthony Oseyemi) who are researching in a South African jungle when their drone goes missing. Gabi goes off to find it but becomes separated from Winston and eventually captured by a father and son who, seemingly, live alone in the jungle.
Written by Tertius Kapp and directed by Jaco Bouwer, Gaia’s main mystery is why and how these two white men, Barend (Carel New) and Stefan (Alex van Dyk), live the way they do. Besides covering their skins in mud, using homemade bow and arrows, and saying a daily prayer to a mysterious forest god, they also shield themselves from some kind of deadly spore and have the ability to heal wounds incredibly quickly. All of this fascinates Gabi who is both scared and fascinated by the father and son.
The tone set by all of this is one of dread and intrigue. A tone that permeates the whole film and increases when we finally get a taste of what is out in the darkness. Which, if you’ve ever played The Last of Us or Resident Evil, will scare you even more. No, it’s not zombies, but the beings haunting the forest almost look like the underwater, barnacle-infused, coral-filled monsters from those games, complete with the unpredictable movements and clicking noises. Which, on their own, are scary enough. But it doesn’t answer why Barend and Stefan would willingly choose to live among them. That’s where Gaia gets really interesting and the environment horror comes in. You see, the two men believe the jungle itself—more specifically herself—is starting to take back the planet that’s long been hers. The mystery and scares deepen from there.
Gaia works for a few reasons. The first is the way the story unfolds. There’s no fat on the edges—everything is very clear, direct, and easy to understand...until it isn’t and shouldn’t be. The performances are top-notch also, with Rockman, in particular, blending so many emotional states we never quite know exactly what she’s thinking and feeling because she’s obviously thinking and feeling a great deal. There are sparse special effects but they’re highly effective when they’re utilized, raising the tension and horror for everyone involved.
From the design of creatures down to the costumes, effects, and more, Gaia certainly has its roots in many other films. But even so, it’s rarely predictable. Near the end, things do get a little overly esoteric and vague but it still works in broad strokes. The result is a satisfying, scary, highly cautionary tale about what humanity is doing to itself and the planet. Which, like the rest of Gaia, isn’t necessarily a new message, but this a welcome reminder in a solid new take.
Gaia just had its world premiere at SXSW and does not yet have distribution.
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