Jaco Bouwer’s Gaia is yet another outstanding horror directorial debut. The film certainly has its flaws, but most of those seem to be symptoms of too much ambition which is all that we can ask of new voices, especially in genre film.
Not to say that Gaia stands on its own as a wholly original piece of work free of any influences. The film borrows freely from other pieces of art, particularly in its visuals, and the story that unfolds feels like a variation on a number of horror movies we’ve seen before. What makes Gaia so exciting is the mythology that Bouwer and writer Tertius Kapp build in their film. A mythology in which the conscious and living Earth is striking back at humanity, for the “declaration of war” that was made with the industrial revolution, with a virus that will return us to flora from fauna. While this idea of the Earth fighting back against humanity for the violence of climate change isn’t new (see Shyamalan’s The Happening for the most famous version of this), Gaia weaves a faith aspect into its story that gives it a Lovecraftian sense of grandeur.
The visual and sonic (both in sound design and score) style of Gaia only further this sense of scale and importance. There are shots that seem to be recreations of iconic images from Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and Melancholia alongside creatures that look like they crawled out of an eco horror Silent Hill game, as well as a never explained red neon light that seems to emanate from the forest. The score throughout is beautifully and unnervingly atmospheric with just enough percussion to still work as a momentum driver when it needs to add some stress to an action or horror sequence. And the sound design makes it feel as though we’re deep in the forest where danger may lurk behind any tree. It’s an enveloping experience that feels truly singular, especially in a theatrical setting.
This then makes the fact that the story feels unoriginal less of an issue. The story follows Gabi (Monique Rockman), a forest ranger who loses a drone in the opening scene leading her on a journey into the wilderness, and her experiences with a father-son pair who live in and worship the forest. Each of the actors, Carel Nel plays father Barend and Alex van Dyk plays son Stefan, brings a physicality to their performances here that makes them believable as two deep forest survivalists and someone who is capable of adapting to that life. Dyk in particular does a lot of work to convey Stefan’s inner life with mostly facial expressions and body language as the character has come of age in the forest and doesn’t have much reason to speak until Gabi arrives. These bodily performances make the world of the film feel more real in its relation to the humans that inhabit it as they seem to need to change the way that they move and exist to live in greater harmony with the wilderness.
Though it does provide a recreation of a significant biblical story which undoubtedly aims to raise the intellectual and thematic heft of the film, whether it succeeds in this goal is unclear, but it’s certainly thrilling. This can also be said of the film’s many dream sequences, which often feature false awakenings, as they deliver some powerfully unnerving imagery while at the same time feeling like a bit of a crutch.
That’s how much of the film feels. Plot points and horror sequences feel somewhat unearned or compulsory, but there are so many ideas about humanity’s relationship to the Earth and God (as well as the potential identity of God and Earth), and the aesthetic world is so engaging, that even if the film sometimes feels like a bit of a mess (which it does), it never feels boring.
More from author Kyle Logan can be found here.