SXSW 2021: ‘Gaia’ Review: “Environmental Dread”
The age of “prestige horror” has brought us some high-caliber filmmaking that gained the genre unforeseen attention. Mostly, this is a good thing, but in pursuit of acclaim, these films often succumb to making their films feature-length allegories that don’t get too ambitious lest general audiences fall behind. At a brisk 96 minutes, Gaia throws everything and the kitchen sink at the screen. What results is a film that sacrifices focus for a daring portrayal of Earth’s wrath in all of its forms.
Directed by Jaco Bouwer, Gaia begins in South Africa’s Tsitsikamma forest. Park rangers Gabi (Monique Rockman) and Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) are surveying the area when Gabi catches an image of a strange man on her drone. Her curiosity getting the better of her, Gabi goes in search of this man. What she finds is a maze of horrors, only to be rescued by Barend (Carel Nel) and his son Stefan (Alex van Dyk). The two are survivalists, and their message is clear: the Earth is angry and she wants vengeance.
As a creature feature, Gaia is serviceable. You have the customary “mind-bending” score, dark lighting, the works. Notably, the monsters the Earth has wrought are an inspired design choice. Looking quite similar to the infected in The Last of Us video game franchise, the monsters are bio-organic cretins. Puss and growth marked husks of what perhaps used to be humans. The problem here is that Bouwer seems unequipped to handle the big horror beats. The fighting off of the creatures lacks that distinctive crunch that it needs for the gory moments to land. It’s all the design of a Cronenbergian nightmare with little of the dread.
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Nevertheless, Gaia succeeds in a couple of key areas. Like Annihilation before it, there’s an attempt to convey the Earth as an anthropomorphized organism that’s just beyond our understanding. Gabi is a protagonist that’s easy to empathize with. As per Rockman’s performance, she carries a deep respect for mother Earth while also caring about people. Barend, on the other hand, is an acolyte of Earth. Carel Nel goes for broke in his religious zealot-like performance. Instead of hammy-ness, it gives a sense of unsettlement – blind devotion to something that he might be interpreting the whims of.
Caught in the middle is the film’s best aspect, Stefan, and the accompanying performance by Alex Van Dyk. Sheltered for all of his life, he’s a thorough study of somehow who has been completely programmed by his father to be a disciple of Earth. He rejects technology and the outside world because his father told him so. Despite his age, he is for all intents and purposes a child, one who is downright shocked by doing an act like touching a woman’s leg for the first time.
Stefan is a catalyst for the film’s tension, as Gabi wants to take him to civilization but Barend wants him to remain. Gaia thus reveals itself to be a primal war between two people of differing viewpoints, both with different views of how the world works. The world, however, doesn’t care. It continues to scream and attack with all it can. Below it is just people arguing. There’s no clearer example of environmental dread.
Gaia is the type of film that demands multiple viewings. It’s almost brash in its scope, and can often feel messy because of that, but there’s something both dramatically appealing and intangible about its brand of eco-horror that feels completely fresh to the genre. The Earth screams and Gaia makes us bask in it. – James Preston Poole
Gaia will release in theaters this summer.
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