The 1962 movie version of John Wyndham's classic sci-fi novel 'The Day of the Triffids' introduced audiences to a world overtaken by hungry plant life, seeded on our planet via a meteor. Further examples of horticultural horror include 'The Ruins', the big-screen adaptation of Scott Smith's bestseller that sees American tourists menaced by bloodthirsty vines at a Mayan temple, Jessica Hausner's 'Little Joe', about a cheerful flower plotting global domination, and 'The Happening', M. Night Shyamalan's terrifically cheesy tale of trees that excrete a neurotoxin that makes people hurl themselves under lawnmowers. Now, Jaco Bouwer has added 'Gaia' - filmed in Cape Town, South Africa - to the growing compost heap of scary plant flicks.
Two forest rangers - Gabi (Monique Rockman) and Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) - go on a routine drone scan of the forest. Cue: some impressive work from DP Jorrie van der Walt, who captures a vast maze of lush treetops with a hypnotising camera manoeuvre, not dissimilar to what Ari Aster utilised in 'Midsommar'. This establishing shot instantly creates an ominous mood and has the audience anticipating the terrors hidden amongst the foliage. Within the forest, van der Walt's camera comes to rest on minute details, like the prickled skin of Gabi's legs. The colour grading only adds to the claustrophobic feeling of being enveloped by the jungle.
Gabi and Winston's mission doesn't go as planned. A pair of mysterious mud-covered men snag the forest rangers' flying equipment. Although Winston warns his co-worker about the dangers of the wilderness, Gabi sets out to find the drone. When her leg is wounded by a camouflaged trap, she suddenly finds herself at the mercy of the aforementioned grubby hermits.
These two gents are Barend (Carel Nel) and his son, Stefan (Alex van Dyk). The older man was once a renowned bioscientist, who left a world of scientific progress behind after his wife died. Now, Barend and Stefan live in the forest and try to avoid the blind but menacing fungus creatures who live in the dark. Furthermore, they are servants of a nature spirit, Gaia.
The slow destruction of our planet is proving fertile material for eco-horror movies. Eco-horror is a subgenre that has sprung out of our justifiable feelings of guilt over the harm we continue to inflict upon Mother Earth, not to mention our anxiety over the consequences that we're already experiencing - like a lot of other Australians, I can still smell the smoke from the Australian bushfire crisis of 2020.
Unfortunately, 'Gaia' is like the night-blooming cereus blossom, a cactus that flowers at night but then withers away with extraordinary speed. Tertius Kapp's script doesn't work hard enough, particularly when compared to Ben Wheatley's recent 'In the Earth', with which it shares several themes.
'Gaia' is like the night-blooming cereus blossom, a cactus that flowers at night but then withers away with extraordinary speed.
Bouwer spends a considerable amount of time creating an unsettling atmosphere and allowing his film's message to slowly unfurl, much like the freaky tree in the forest that eventually becomes the centrepiece of the story. However, simmering tensions never ignite. Although the mushroom zombies are impressively designed and there are elements of Cronenbergian body horror, 'Gaia' leans too heavily on cheap jump scares. Bouwer tries to bolster the mood with some surreal hallucinogenic sequences, but even those feel like an exercise in style over substance. In terms of pacing, scenes tend to either drag (Gabi acclimatising to the lifestyle of the hermits) or go too quickly (a 'Night of the Living Dead'-style assault on the shack by the fungus monsters).
The movie's biggest weakness is its characters. There are only four of them (quickly reduced to three) and they spend the movie in a handful of locations. This wouldn't be a problem if their development, motivations and relationships weren't so unengaging. The setup - the arrival of Gabi driving a wedge between the hormonal young man and his fanatical dad - has shades of Craig Zobel's 'Z for Zachariah', but isn't really explored. Large slabs of dialogue are just ecological ramblings.
Visually arresting but narratively vegetative, 'Gaia' is an eco-horror flick that never takes root.