Eco horror and bio horror have been on the rise for a while now. As we continue to destroy our planet, horror filmmakers have had an impressive amount of material to be inspired by. In these films, nature is something to be feared as well as respected. Jaco Bouwer's GAIA is heavy on the mood and visuals, but lacks the thematic content to lift it from good to great.
Gabi (Monique Rockman) and Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) are on a routine tour through the dense woods when they get separated. Gabi injures herself in a trap left by two strange men living deep in the forest who tend to her and introduce their lifestyle to her. Berand and his son Stefan live in fear of something in the forest and Gabi will soon find out exactly what lurks in the shadows.
From its very first moments, GAIA is atmospheric and immersive. It's a shame the film is only released digitally as the big screen would certainly provide another level to Jorrie van der Walt's cinematography. The visuals are lush, but oppressive and at times GAIA is almost unbearably suffocating in how it traps you within its dreary, nightmarish world.
As the film goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that GAIA is a mere sum of its influences. It looks and feels like a live-action The Last Of Us in many ways and while the makeup and special effects are very impressive indeed, it all just feels borrowed or stolen even. The CGI isn't particularly seamless, but does provide an uncertainty, an other-worldliness that's deeply unsettling and adds to the film's overall atmosphere, even if GAIA never comes together in a completely satisfying way.
Written by Tertius Kapp, the script is filled with clunky dialogue and the actors can't always pull it off. Carel Nel gives a haunting performance as Berand, but Rockman struggles in a role that reduces her into a hapless, passive victim. Pierre-Henri Wicomb's magnificent score is intrusive, yet hypnotic. From a technical perspective, GAIA has it all, but it struggles to get its convoluted message across even if it gives you something to think about. Yes, humans are complex beings and often evil, but how does our so-called heroine or protagonist complicate it, if at all?
GAIA features moments that are equal in both shock and awe, in fear and wonder. To describe these in more detail would ruin the moment, so you're just going to have to believe it. The film may not reach a completely solid conclusion and there are plenty of bumps in the road, but GAIA is a tense, thrilling and terrifying vision from Bouwer. There is much here to enjoy and GAIA provides equally much to think about. It speaks to and about our primal fear of nature and boy, oh boy, fear we should.
Watch GAIA on Altitude.film and other digital platforms from 27 September.