A newcomer to the scene, South African director Jaco Bouwer‘s feature directorial debut Gaia will instantly bring to mind a handful of recent eco-horror staples. Filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic and originally making its global debut at SXSW back in March, Gaia takes a high concept approach along the lines of Annihilation. Two unsuspecting park rangers making their rounds discover two strangers living what can only be described as either a post-apocalyptic or prehistoric life out in the woods. What begins as a simple delay in the rangers’ schedule turns into a primordial fight for survival, with much more at stake than they’d ever imagine. I’d describe it best as a low-budget arthouse The Last of Us meets It Comes at Night, if directed by Ben Wheatley and written by Jeff VanderMeer (Southern Reach Trilogy—the book trilogy that Annihilation comes from).
This latest entry into the eco-horror canon does well to isolate and lure you into the on-location South African Tsitsikamma Forest (similar to Prospect‘s expert use of Washington’s Olympic Park). There’s no doubting Bouwer’s artistic eye and flair for the sublime. Like the title insinuates, Gaia is visually stunning in its stillness, wides, and intimately primal intercuts. First and foremost, Gaia is a visual story with little to no reliance on dialogue. With half of the dialogue being spoken in Afrikaans and the other 45% expecting you to tag along through subliminal theological and yonic imagery, Gaia will certainly fancy the eyes. Whether it be the skin-tingling acid trip visuals, the natural state of the forest, the practical body horror effects of the Last of Us Clicker fungus, or the very simplistic survivalist production design, it’s one of the most immersive films for your senses this year.
Gaia does suffer from an odd love subplot forced into the second act for the sake of adding another layer to the maternal theme. To make it even odder, there’s an anachronistic sentiment when you see an almost naked wild recluse interacting with a city girl’s cellphone, swiping through her photos trying to avoid getting too flustered. I wish they had exchanged the Adam & Eve temptation for some more exploration of the fungal infected forest and its underused creatures. But then again, perhaps that’s my own personal taste wanting Gaia to include some more (expensive) tense action sequences like Annihilation had with the man-bear and the alligator. But that’s not necessarily what Gaia nor Bouwer are trying to accomplish with this more intrinsically meditative art project. Regardless, I will be keeping an eye on this South African director, and would love to see what he can do with a bigger budget because the gorgeous visuals combined with some creepy sound design and the theological/mythological themes of creation, metamorphosis, maternity, death, etc. were all very captivating. Loads of aforementioned yonic imagery and straight up TLOU Clickers—the latter unfortunately rarely shown in much moving detail despite being practical, probably due to budget. I was hoping for a nice shot in homage to Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Child, but no such luck. At least there’s no shortage of scene and script implications revolving around the appropriately titled Gaia.
If you’re into the eco-horror cinematic universe, or like post-apocalyptic vibe stories set in the secluded wilderness with small casts, give Gaia a go. A brisk debut that certainly shows a lot of promise.
Film Studies/History graduate, using my love and knowledge of the medium to pass as a critic. To my editor’s chagrin, I typically like to go over my word count in discussing films. Most if not all my reviews are originally written within an hour of finishing the film, so that I can deliver an unfiltered, raw, genuine, in the moment, thought process to you. My taste is eclectic (both in film and music), but I have a strong preference for 80s Cult/Sleaze films, Sci-fi, War, Chambara, Fantasy, and Psychological Thrillers. Thanks for giving us a read and I hope you’ve enjoyed your visit! Long live physical media; long live VHS. Remember: watch whatever, whenever, with whomever.