By DEIRDRE CRIMMINS
Starring Monique Rockman, Carel Nel, and Alex van Dyk
Written by Tertius Kapp
Directed by Jaco Bouwer
Nature horror films will always have plenty of material to use for scares, because the natural world can be damn creepy. Whether they are cautionary tales of nature fighting back against made-made destruction or stories exposing what fears can be found in the wild itself, these movies typically feature humans out of their element and at the mercy of whatever is skulking around the forest. GAIA is no exception.
GAIA takes place in our modern times, and begins by first following a pair of park rangers as they inspect their series of cameras deep in a South African forest. Gabi and Winston (Monique Rockman and Anthony Oseyemi) are traveling by canoe down a river through the dense trees, looking for their spots to stop and check memory cards. Shortly after Gabi’s drone sees a man, it stops working, though she has little clue why. She and Winston then commit the cardinal horror movie sin of splitting up so that she can retrieve her flying gadget and he can check the remaining cameras before it gets dark. Can you see where this is going?
Without playing too much in the unknown at first, GAIA quickly introduces us to the men that now have her drone. Barend and Stefan (Carel Nel and Alex van Dyk) are tall, unhealthily thin men who are out in the forest, covered in mud and setting traps. Gabi, while searching for Winston, gets caught in one of their traps and wanders into what turns out to be their cabin in search of help. Winston, however, suffers a separate and more mysterious fate. The rest of the film uses the tension between Gabi and these two survivalist men to propel our understanding of just what is going on in these woods. Stefan is mostly quiet, but kind. Barend, on the other hand, has far deeper investment in the ways of their world and the global ramifications of what is happening there.
GAIA does have some excellent scenes of terror and foreboding right from the start. It wastes no time in introducing fear and concern within the first few moments of the film. It is when the film wanders away from what it is building that feels like a little bit of a stumble. Barend’s ravings and manifestos are magnetic, as is his loyalty to them, but when there is a monster attack or transformative body horror also happening, his rantings are given disproportionate focus. And while it would be great to discuss these creatures and the monster design, they are often relegated to the background or just off screen. From what we can see of them, they are terrifying and formidable foes, but it would have been great to see them clearly. The physical changes that both Winston and Gabi go through, however, show us that the film artists behind GAIA are incredible at painful looking body horrors.
Rockman and van Dyk each hold their own as two of the three characters taking up the majority of the screen time in GAIA, but, in nearly every scene, Nel owns the frame. He is tormented and dedicated one moment, holding his own at the pulpit for an audience of one the next. Very specifically, there is a monologue at the top of the third act during which you may not blink or breathe unless he commands it. His possession of the character of Barend is a chilling, engrossing sight.
Part Island Of The Mushroom People, part The Ruins, and part The Happening, GAIA plants its own flag on nature-based environmental horror. Now, stay out of the woods!