Amid the past year’s pandemic hardships and the intensifying threat of climate change, it seemed only natural for eco-horror to make a resurgence among genre cinema. Early this year, Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth provided a hypnagogic horror trip couched in the imagery and anxieties of Covid’s new normal. Although its production begun before 2020’s lockdowns, Jaco Bouwer‘s Gaia seems like a right film for these times, exploring similar themes as Wheatley’s hypnagogic weird but emerging as its own unique tale of fungal terror and vengeful nature.

Filmed and set in South Africa’s Tsitsikamma National Park, Gaia immediately establishes its strength of arresting, unnerving cinematography. DP Jorrie van der Walt morphs the stunning Tsitsikamma forests into a suffocating arboreal cage, one that quickly snares two park rangers during their routine observations. After her drone is attacked by a fleeting figure, Gabi (Monique Rockman) enters the wilderness to retrieve the footage, only to be brutally injured by a spike trap. Refuge in a nearby hut brings her face-to-face with that mysterious presence: Barend (Carel Nel) and Stefan (Alex van Dyk), father and son living a mud-smeared survivalist existence within Tsitsikamma. The tense dynamic between Rockman‘s interloper and her ritualistic saviors could sustain a movie on its own, but the surrounding forest has other invasive, grisly aims.

Undulating creepers, grasping shrooms, the beating crimson heart of the woods: Tsitsikamma’s earth itself lays siege on these human invaders. Worse than the animated mycorrhiza are the spore-infested creatures lurking in the darkness, their blind, mottled heads splayed open in a mushroom crown. If that sounds like the Clicker enemies from video game series The Last of Us, that’s because Gaia’s stalking humanoids share a startling resemblance. Bouwer stages several intense sequences with its blind monstrosities, as the lead trio sneaks in silence or fends off attacks with crude arrows. But among the overall runtime, those suspense sequences largely become anomalies compared to the film’s body horror and ideological clash. Perhaps a cruel inverse of the anthropocene encroaching upon nature, Gaia earns its most unnerving moments from fungus creeping through human flesh, mushroom caps sprouting from wounds and scratched away in bloody smears.

Gaia’s script takes similar aim at the anthropocene, with a stunted Stefan caught between Gabi‘s representative of civilization and the zealot ritualistic Barend. Grim survival turns to a collision of ideals, driven by Carel Nel‘s enraged sermons against industrialization and mankind’s strangle of Mother Earth. Tertius Kapp’s initially intriguing script grows progressively thin, until its characters are reduced to ideological avatars. By the end, Biblical subtleties have become blaring overtones recalling Abraham’s story of sacrifice. Gaia’s theme proposes potent ideas, but its script spirals into patchwork abstraction that loses sight of the early character dynamics and survival-horror tension.

Gaia’s sinister landscape and imagery carries its unraveling plot to a cold, arguably underwhelming finish. But if Wheatley’s trippy In the Earth was too abstract and psychedelically detached in its ecological dread, Bouwer’s film offers a more solid and grounded eco-horror fix.

Summary
Proposes potent ideas, but the film’s script spirals into patchwork abstraction that loses sight of the early character dynamics and survival-horror tension.
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Fungal Terror
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