In the opening scene of South African filmmaker Jaco Bouwer’s horror-fantasia Gaia, two forest rangers canoe down a river nestled within a towering woodland environment. One of them, Gabi (Monique Rockman) remotely pilots a snazzy drone, flying it high over the towering trees, while her partner, Winston (Anthony Oseyemi), takes control of rowing the boat. This routine surveillance operation is rudely interrupted when the drone crash lands somewhere in the adjacent woods, with the attached video camera capturing a freaky tribal-looking dude just before shorting out.
Nevertheless, Gabi insists on venturing into the forest to retrieve the broken equipment, despite Winston’s warnings against it, citing the fact that people get lost in this area all the time. “You’re just like those whities,” Winston unnervingly jokes, hinting at his country’s entrenched racial tensions, “Danger? Where?” But Gabi won’t take no for answer, even though it’s painfully obvious that this will not end well.
Fifteen minutes later and those suspicions are bluntly confirmed, with Gabi getting caught in a gnarly trap set near the busted drone, sending a wooden spike directly through her foot. She is then subsequently approached by the aforementioned guy on the camera, who turns out to be an intense survivalist named Barend (Carel Nel), and taken back to the hut that he shares with his teenage son Stefan (Alex van Dyk). Disillusioned with society after the death of his cancer-stricken wife, Barend brought Stefan out into the wilderness to live a life more attuned to nature. And after patching up Gabi’s injury, they inform her of the greater threat lying beyond their makeshift habitat – a dangerous post-human creature that will attack anything in its path, a fate that poor Winston meets pretty much immediately upon running into the woods to find Gabi (they really, really should have taken his advice).
This hackneyed setup might work for a dumb, jungle exploitation romp but Gaia positions itself as a more artful kind of scare flick, concerning itself with the eternal struggle between man and nature, relayed to us via endless pontificating from Barend about the destructiveness of the human race. In this way, Bouwer brings to mind other recent eco-horror efforts such as Alex Garland’s Annihilation or Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth, often bordering on shameless plagiarism. For example, the forest creature, looking like a Pan’s Labyrinth-reject, transmits a fungus to its victim, causing flowers and assorted plants to literally grow out of the body of said person, much like the happenings in Garland’s film. In fact, the whole endeavour seems to be an attempt at a somewhat scaled-back version of Annihilation, transposed to the beautiful landscape of South Africa’s lush Tsitsikamma Forest.
To that end, Bouwer comes up with some appropriately psychedelic visuals, but even those seem cribbed from countless other woodsy horror flicks, starting with the oft-used ominous upside-down aerial shot right through to an abundance of trippy environmental hallucinations that have already been played out to death ever since Antichrist seared our eyeballs over a decade ago. You’d think a dream sequence that contains a shot of Barend literally fucking a tree (very Von Trier) would be a shocker, and yet at this point, it comes off as pretty routine stuff.
While Gaia is clearly attempting to take a philosophical path, the film ultimately just keeps reminding us of all these similarly-themed films that have dived deeper into the existentialist quandaries at hand. Meanwhile, it’s too hard in this day and age to sympathize with modern characters that act as if they’ve never seen a horror movie before, a common yet underacknowledged problem with the so-called “elevated horror” movement (I’m looking at you Midsommar). At this point, I’d rather take an unapologetic cheesefest version of this concept over the somberly pretentious snoozer that we get here.