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Saturday, April 1, 2023

‘Gaia’ Is A Shocking, Claustrophobic, Novel Eco-Horror Journey

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As a subgenre, eco-horror has a stunning pedigree going back at least as far as the 1954 kaiju classic Godzilla, influencing films as diverse as Them! (1954), The Birds (1963) through to The Stuff (1985), Mimic (1997), Splinter (2008), and Annihilation (2018). It’s often a highly interesting genre from a conceptual standpoint, able to highlight ecological issues like deforestation, fracking, or climate change. The most interesting aspect of quality eco-horror at its best, however, is its upending of traditional hierarchies that are central to most Western ideologies—that humanity is exempt from natural laws and at the top of the metaphorical food chain, the dominant species.

But what if we weren’t?

Jaco Bouwer’s Gaia excels in the eco-horror terrain, offering impressive scares and drama, great performances, and offering larger than life stakes for its central characters. The film sees park rangers Gabi (Monique Rockman) and Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) on a forest surveillance mission that gets interrupted when a suspicious human destroys the pair’s drone. The two have encountered a pair of mysterious mud-covered humans who seem to have their own distinct relgion connected to the surrounding ecology—and soon they run into post-human somethings that suggest deeper, weirder events are occurring.

Jorrie van der Walt’s cinematography is beautiful and haunting, deeply embedded in the surrounding forest and its isolated greenery. The creature design reflects the best of both eco-and-body horror; it’s shocking and truly frightening, especially when situated within the film’s larger narrative. The story itself, moreover, builds to a strong conclusion with wide-ranging implications.

In a film with a cast of four, a lot weighs on any individual performance. Monique Rockman gives an excellent, emotionally complex turn as ‘Gabi’, while Carel Nel’s ‘Barend’ steals the show with a combination of complex kindness, subtle menace, and mystery. While these two performances add a lot to the film’s larger-than-life narrative, all four players do an excellent job of giving grounded, rich performances.

Gaia is one of the stronger eco-horror works of recent memory, with excellently conceived and executed body horror elements, great tension, talented performances, and a conclusion with major implications for the future of humanity (within the film’s world). It’s a great entry into the horror canon, and well worth the time of genre fans.

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