Zombos Says: Good. Slow pacing and an artful but ponderously delivered ecological-warning weigh it down.
Gaia's body and ecological horror elements can be found in earlier movies such as Matango and The Ruins. At this point in time, given the intensifying global climate, the bitter taste of pandemic disruption, the continuing extinction of many species, the endless pollution of our oceans, and how little we have done to address it or even freak out about it, I am not sure that more two-fisted messaging about an ecological apocalypse is anywhere near a priority for most movie audiences. On a personal note, perhaps a little less we-know-we're-in-deep-shit movies and a lot more of what-do-we-do-about-it movies would be encouraging, at least for this reviewer.
We tend to close the barn door after the horses have fled and yell fire after the barn has burned down. Repeatedly. Given that, this movie should be scary first and then hit us hard with its didactic ecological doomsday messaging through that horror. Jacob Bouwer (director) and Tertius Kapp (writer) prefer it the other way. Their direction makes Gaia a more polished and visually-confirming art house take on a truly terrible environmental and body horror that overwhelms its four characters, but underwhelms our emotions as we watch it unfold. In other words, Gaia aims for the head, not the palpitating heart.
Perhaps the direction is too documentarian and the characters too pensive? Brooding is not what is needed here, yet brooding we get. Even after a blind creature crashes into the cabin, it feels more like a nuisance than an actual threat. Gabi, who should be freaked out by the sudden appearance and anxious to get out of there, instead becomes more determined to stay. What gives?
What should be gut-wrenching moments to watch are delivered as artfully poetic annihilations instead. And, of course, there is the mutated, personal religion (every pre and post apocalyptic movie needs one, of course) to complicate things and that's where the horror festers in this story. It affects each character, especially the patriarch with the cliff-fall from sanity, but Gaia weighs down his and its manifesto with overly long excursions into dreamscapes and not enough of the truly frightening tree that mothers too well (depicted with excellent imagery and mood). The malevolent denizens of this strange forest, clearly having stayed too long in the woods, create little tension or threat--especially when given the overused clicks and ticks that many apocalyptic monsters seem to suffer from in these movies--and everyone goes about their day without much apprehension. Except for Winston. He's the lone black guy, so you know how he will wind up. The characters worry about the forest creatures as much as one would for an overstayed houseguest.
Two park rangers, making their rounds, step into the singular lives and forest of two isolated hunters, primitively living off the land. An errant drone sends one of the rangers, Gabi (Monique Rockman)--against the warnings of the other, Winston (Anthony Oseyemi)--to find it. He eventually chases after her when she fails to make it back to the river at the appointed time. She finds the drone and Barend (Carel Nel), and his son Stefan (Alex van Dyk). Both men are survivalists, but Stefan grew up in the forest while his father chose to live there. What happened to his mother is the root to what happens with each of them, and the underpinning of the connection between Barend and the land, and the ecological horror growing there. Instead of the science that Barend once followed, he now exists in a quasi-religious and crazy-state abandonment, making his altar at the strange tree bearing even stranger fruit.
Gabi upsets the balance of this isolation and religious manifesto folie a deux, and weakens the father and son relationship to force the story's path to the usual downbeat conclusion. One can question the choices she makes as her reluctant helpers try to get her out of the forest so they can return to their normal survivalist routine, but she tries to understand them and what is happening to and around her. Every action, every conflict, is photographed with an overarching gloom that permeates the forest, the simple cabin, and Gabi's dreams. Barend, with his frail body and intense stare, is gloom and doom personified, even revels in it as he writes his manifesto by candle light. His son is no longer so sure of his father's intentions or authority, now that Gabi has entered their solitary existence to awaken sexual feelings that were unknown to him before her arrival.
Visually, Gaia is a treat. Story-wise, it needs more bite for greater emotional impact. If you are looking for a cerebral ecological horror movie, it is for you.
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