Gaia (2021)

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Jaco Bouwer’s first feature starts with great visuals and effective suspense but gets lost in a a hallucinogenic mess that promises more than it delivers.

Gabi (Monique Rockman) and Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) are two forests rangers deep in a febrile South African jungle, checking camera technology. Gabi does what characters always do in horror films and goes off alone to check on a downed drone, “We don’t want to leave trash.” Injured in a trap set by a father and son who are living so off the grid, the grid isn’t even a tiny speck on the horizon, she is eventually taken in by them in their ramshackle hut. Winston, who seems to have very little common sense for someone who works in the wilds, looks for Gabi through the night and is confronted by unnamed and inhuman predators.

On the surface, this seems to be a horror about monsters in an inhospitable environment, with Gabi our hero who may or may not survive the night. When the monsters invade the hut, the tension is palpable and father Barend (Carel Nel) and son Stefan (Alex van Dyk) morph from adversaries to saviours. It’s not so simple though and Bouwer takes us down a meandering path full of portents and unsubtle messaging about nature, humankind, fecundity and innocence.

That Barend and Stefan are two white men, portraying many of the cultural traits of indigenous people, is the first element that seems off-kilter. There are Bible verses, allusions to Adam and Eve, magic mushrooms, sacrifices and betrayals. Women are monstrous or sanctified and Bouwer seems keen to get Gabi’s kit off whenever possible, albeit in a lyrical and portentous way. There are effective visuals, particularly the fairy-like sinister magic of ever-present fungi, and an ominous and often intrusive score that sometimes feels like it is underlining every significant moment.

Unfortunately, the suspense begins to dissipate as the focus turns from the real monsters to the monstrousness of humans and the last scenes probably sounded good in the pitch but feel shallow. The ending is almost laughably clumsy as if Bouwer didn’t have enough confidence in his story or his audience.

Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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