The first images and sounds of the South African eco-horror feature Gaia will doubtlessly feel familiar to contemporary filmgoers: As a menacing ambient score keens unnervingly, the camera slowly pans over a sea of rustling, blue-green treetops. Such openings are practically an art-horror cliché at this point, but director Jaco Bouwer and cinematographer Jorrie van der Walt execute their version solidly enough. Indeed, something about the rough yet unbroken texture of those leafy crowns, captured from such a high elevation, creates an optical illusion that confuses the brain’s sense of scale. The viewer could very well be looking at an expanse of broccoli florets or – perhaps more fittingly, given the film’s story – the rugged surface of a lichen-encrusted rock. The filmmakers also throw a stomach-flipping 180-degree tilt into their opening, because if you aren’t ripping off Midsommar, are you even doing 2020s horror properly?
Rangers Gabi (Monique Rockman) and Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) are heading into this primeval wilderness via canoe. They've been tasked to survey a trackless area by drone and to change the memory cards in the forest service’s wildlife cameras. Despite the distressing fact that their drone is quickly disabled by what appears to be a disheveled wild man, Gabi decides that this would be a perfect time for her to head off into the forest on foot to service the remaining cameras by herself. It’s not the last time that Tertius Kapp’s screenplay leans on this kind of horror-movie anti-logic, which almost feels quaint in its B-movie stupidity. (Another plot point involves Winston accidentally disabling his walkie-talkie by dropping it in the water at the bottom of the canoe. What kind of forestry agency neglects to provide its rangers with waterproof gear?)
Initial appearances notwithstanding, Gaia is not really a wilderness-survival thriller. To his credit, Bouwer quickly moves things along to the meat of the film’s scenario. In short order, Gabi steps on a hand-made wooden spike trap, gruesomely maiming her foot. As night falls, she stumbles onto a rustic hovel that serves as a home for two mud-caked survivalists who speak only Afrikaans: The previously glimpsed Barend (Carel Nel) and his older teenage son, Stefan (Alex van Dyk). Although this eccentric pair is more than a little intimidating – what with their Stone Age weapons and complete lack of modern-day niceties – the real threat lies outside the cabin. That threat eventually descends on Winston while he is bumbling around the nocturnal forest vainly searching for Gabi. Strange, gibbering humanoid creatures start to hound him through the darkness, and eventually he is engulfed by what appears to be a mass of writhing fungal hyphae.
That’s right: This is fungal horror, a la M.R. Carey’s 2014 novel The Girls with All the Gifts and Naughty Dog’s smash 2013 action-adventure game The Last of Us. Indeed, Bouwer and his crew seem to have lifted quite a bit from the latter, at least in terms of their creature design. Much like the notorious “clickers'' depicted in The Last of Us, the humans who are infected by the film’s insidious fungal spores are slowly transformed into blind, shrieking monstrosities covered in florid mushrooms, wrinkled lichens, and fuzzy molds. Although originality is not one of Gaia’s strong suits, it’s hard to take issue with the execution of this borrowed concept. The prosthetic effects by designer Clinton Smith are jaw-droppingly realistic and disturbing, especially when one considers that this is a low-budget indie production. Simply put, the practical effects are pure nightmare fuel, and, in comparison, the film’s computer-generated fungal filaments never seem as convincing or threatening.
As horrifying as the basidia-encrusted zombies (fombies? fungbies?) might be, they represent a pitiless, elemental kind of peril, one coldly inhuman in its desire to consume and absorb. Gabi must contend with a more complex danger in the person of Barend, who has spent two decades honing a specific set of skills to protect himself from the fungus and its animalistic minions. This would seem to make Barend and the callow, forest-reared Stefan ideal allies for Gabi, if she ever hopes to recover from her injuries and fight off the very hungry creatures that have them surrounded. Unfortunately, her host has other ideas. Stefan, it seems, is not so much the fungus’ adversary as its acolyte, a spittle-flecked zealot who is contemptuous of the despoiling evils of the modern world. To that end, he has taken to worshipping the vast and ancient fungal organism that has spread beneath the forest – an entity loosely inspired, perhaps, by the 2,200-acre Armillaria ostoyae fungus that inhabits eastern Oregon. Whether Barend is perhaps conflating this mycological mother-goddess with his dead wife is largely beside the point for Gabi, who decides to play along with his delusions in the hopes of eventually making her escape, ideally with the kind-hearted Stefan in tow.
As one might expect in a film where the air is thick with preternatural spores, Bouwer embellishes the grittier captivity-horror aspects of his tale with psychedelic visuals. These often feel like an attempt to repackage the mind-melting madness of Altered States (1980) in a moody, desaturated visual idiom more suited to the genre’s 21st-century conventions. Unfortunately, this tends to lessen their hallucinogenic impact, as does Bouwer’s preference for clearly delineating the boundaries between dreams and reality. Gabi has so many fungal-related nightmares – snapping awake and sitting up with a gasp every time – that it starts to feel almost like self-parody. (Bouwer even includes that old Twilight Zone chestnut, the nightmare within a nightmare.) Regardless, nothing in the film’s polished but only modestly freaky psychedelic sequences is remotely as disturbing as the tiny toadstools and polypore conks that bloom from Gabi’s open sores. This suggests that the film might have been better off leaning into its body-horror aspects rather than slathering on the acid-flick weirdness to appeal to the midnight crowd.
For most of its running time, Gaia is essentially a three-person show, and although the performers acquit themselves well enough, none of them are sufficiently persuasive to sell the rapidly mutating character dynamics as anything more than a sequence of pre-scripted beats. Rockman – who also appears in the Bouwer-directed supernatural-thriller television series Die Spreeus – does her best with a screenplay that can’t seem to decide if her character is a frank aggressor, whimpering victim, or cunning chess-player. Van Dyk renders Stefan as a Tarzan-like tabula rasa, which is perhaps an understandable choice, but it makes Gabi’s swift attachment to him a little difficult to buy. Nel invests Barend with an appropriately sinewy, wild-eyed intensity, although his showstopper monologue about the malignancy of the civilized world goes on for so long and reaches such absurdly purple heights that it winds up being unintentionally funny.
The undercooked quality to Gaia’s character drama is symptomatic of a film that prefers to fuss over the artfulness of its presentation rather than worry about story. Granted, the components of that presentation are often quite impressive, from van der Walt’s cinematography to Smith’s prosthetics to Tim Pringle’s paranoia-inducing sound design to Pierre-Henri Wicomb’s unsettling, drone-heavy score. It’s all quite handsome and even effective in the moment at conjuring a mood of primordial fear and disorientation. However, it never adds up to much other than skin-crawling style for the sake of style. That formula can take the right horror film quite far indeed, but Gaia doesn’t have the kind of focused, folklore-indebted story that makes this heightened aesthetic approach work. (The bizarre third-act parallels to Abrahamic myth by way of Little Shop of Horrors feel like too little, too late.) Beneath its eye-catching surface structures, the film is ultimately a mush of woolly worldbuilding, opaque character beats, and banal zombie-movie incidents.
Gaia is now playing theatrically in select cities and will be available to rent from major online platforms on June 25, 2021.