Gaia – Review
An injured forest ranger on a routine mission is saved by two off-the-grid survivalists. What is initially a welcome rescue grows more suspicious as the son and his renegade father reveal a cultish devotion to the forest.
Welcome to Knockout Horror and to another Quick Fire Review. Today’s movie is a bit of a strange one. We are taking a look at South African eco horror movie Gaia. Now ecological horror movies are always a little on the weird side. The subject matter allows the filmmaker to go crazy with the visuals. Psychedelic scenes coupled with a heavy focus on nature are common. Gaia is absolutely no different.
Filmed in 2020 in South Africa’s Garden Route region. Production of Gaia had to be shut down due to the pandemic. This left the people working on the film split. Some went back to Cape Town while others lived in the forest. The troubled production managed to get back underway after a period of uncertainty. The result is a movie whose message seems even more apt given the world’s situation at the time. Anyway, let’s take a look. As always with Quick Fire Reviews, this will be strictly under 1,000 words. Not including this opening and the headers, of course.
Gaia – Eco-Conscious Horror
Gaia follows the story of Forestry Service Employee Gabi. Heading into the woods to recover a lost drone. Gabi is injured by a trap. Removing the impaled spike from her foot. Gabi is badly hurt and requiring of assistance. She roams the woods looking for help. As it begins to get dark, she stumbles upon a house. Heading inside, she rests. The home belongs to a pair of survivalists, Barend and Stefan. When Gabi meets them, they seem strange. It is as if they are hiding something. It soon becomes clear, however, that the forest is hiding something as well. Something incredibly sinister.
Gaia is one of those movies that you go into knowing what to expect. You know it will be somewhere between horror and preachy drama. Movies with a message are fairly common nowadays. The theme of climate damage is one that is very prevalent. Whether dragging an entire crew of people. Tons of equipment. And setting up camps in the middle of the forest is the way to send this message. I am not sure. It all feels a tad hypocritical. Still, here we are.
A Familiar Concept
Gaia is a movie heavily concerned with the impact man is having on nature. The core message is simple. What would happen if nature fought back? Our protagonist Gabi meets two survivalists. Barend and Stefan have been living in the forest for years. Barend’s late wife loved the place. When she passed away, Barend decided to raise his son there. The pair attempt to live in tune with nature. They only take what comes as a result of their giving. They sacrifice and nature provides them enough to survive.
This particular forest is a difficult place to survive. It harbours something that the world is not prepared for. Mother nature is beginning to fight back and the results are horrifying. Barend and Stefan have managed to survive but Barend’s studies hint at a bleak future. Despite this, Gabi is determined to leave. It is only when something strange attacks the group that she sees the reality of the situation. It’s a fairly interesting story but one that has been done many times before. This is something of an issue with Gaia. The sense of familiarity is present throughout. From the scenario to the creatures themselves. There is a distinct sense of Deja-vu.
A Little Too Familiar in Parts
Gaia puts a lot of effort into establishing tension. The imposing forest makes for a fantastic location. Sounds seemingly come from all around. The house they sleep in doesn’t seem completely safe. The characters have a legitimate reason for fear. It is suggested, early on, that something is deeply amiss. A few fairly tense scenes during the first half of the movie confirm this. Gaia does a nice job setting the mood. It somewhat comes apart when we have our first creature reveal, though.
I don’t want to throw the word plagiarism around. I mean, horror movies take influence from all over. With that being said, something bears mention here. Did the makers of Gaia think that The Last of Us was a relatively unheard of game? The creature design here is far too similar to that of the aforementioned game series. That sort of undermined the fear factor a little, for me. It was all too familiar. Coupled with Gaia’s recycled plot line. It feels somewhat lacking in originality.
Fantastic Acting, Cinematography and Effects
Luckily there are a few things that Gaia does really well. It combines traditional creature horror scares with some interesting body horror. Characters suffer from fungal growths. The likes of which Canesten wouldn’t have a hope in hell of treating. These look fantastic and horribly realistic. As characters pull the fungus from their skin it stretches convincingly. It looks painful and works brilliantly in creating that “ick” factor. The special effects team have worked overtime here. The aforementioned creature design is also well done, despite the familiarity.
There are a few scares here and there. A few tense moments stand out. The forest makes for a creepy location. The constant need to watch the background works massively in the movie’s favour. Eco horror has a tendency to feature trippy scenes similar to those in Midsommar. Gaia is no exception and thoroughly commits to it. Gabi wanders naked through a world of warped perspective and colour. The things she sees open her eyes to the forest around her. It looks fantastic and meshes brilliant visuals with some rather creepy moments. It is one of the more interesting scenes of this type and very effective.
Acting is great throughout. Monique Rockman is entirely believable as Gabi. Carel Nel, as Barend, has some fantastic and powerful moments. Alex Van Dyk is somewhat understated at Stefan. A muted role doesn’t demand too much but he does fine. I also enjoyed Anthony Oseyemi’s brief stint as Winston. Cinematography is excellent. Gaia uses a mix of different aspect ratios. Changing depending on what is happening in the film. The majority of the time it is presented in 4:3 perfectly capturing the verticality of the forest. It’s a gorgeous looking film.
Is it a Knockout?
Gaia is an interesting movie featuring a few scares and some appreciable tension. An ecologically aware story carries a strong message. Humans are harming the planet and we need to learn to live in tune with nature. Lest it finds a way to fight back. Unfortunately, the movie never quite manages to match the gravity of its message. This is a movie that has been done before and feels all too familiar.
With that having been said. Gaia is still worth a watch. Excellent acting is accompanied by some fantastic visuals. Incredible practical effects provide an element of body horror. It is sure to make you squirm. Creature design, although familiar, is decent and fairly creepy. The story is likely not enough to keep your interest. The tension and some of the effective set pieces should help keep you engaged. All in all, it's a decent movie. It is just very familiar and doesn't do much to stand out.