Mother Nature might be predator, prey or another supernatural being altogether in “Gaia,” infiltrating her targets with unfurling shoots and roots and sudden fungal outcrops, until she’s eventually growing from within them. Or so it seems in first-time feature director Jaco Bouwer’s cool, taciturn ecological horror, which isn’t in any kind of hurry to show us exactly what dark forces are at play in the woods that encircle a tensely matched trio of human characters. We do, however, see their effects, manifested as the film’s own. In an elegant fusion of digital and prosthetic artistry, patches of moss burst through skin like a nasty rash; human flesh is aggressively and involuntarily camouflaged by flora. “Gaia’s” resourceful visuals, however, aren’t matched by equivalent nimbleness in the writing; after a time, the storytelling feels more anemic than enigmatic.
Still, it’s not hard to see what about this distinctly South African production — shot in the country’s ravishing Garden Route region, with a freely switching blend of English and Afrikaans dialogue — excited SXSW programmers and international buyers, making it the first film acquired by Neon and Bleecker Street’s newly launched home entertainment label Decal. If the film’s locale lends it an alluring novelty, Tertius Kapp’s nominally original screenplay brings to mind recent genre touchstones from “Annihilation” to “A Quiet Place.” (A light resemblance to William Friedkin’s 1990 dud “The Guardian” seems more accidental.) As a stylistic calling card for Bouwer, it portends bigger things and bigger budgets, showcasing a quivery facility with atmosphere and crafty technical nous that recalls his compatriot Neill Blomkamp at the outset of his career — even if “Gaia” is no “District 9” sleeper in the making.
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The film’s opening act promises a more prosaic lost-in-the-wild chiller, introducing national park rangers Gabi (Monique Rockman) and Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) as they navigate a boat through a particularly dense, uninhabited stretch of the Tsitsikamma Forest. When the drone they’re using to monitor the landscape crashes, Gabi heads into the wilderness to search for it. That, you can probably guess, is her first mistake; stepping on a vicious hunter’s trap that impales her foot is her second, though she’ll later feel nostalgic for such straightforward dangers. Freeing herself and crawling to the dubious safety of a nearby cabin, she’s gruffly taken in by Barend (Carel Nel), a surly, mud-slathered survivalist who seems to have surrendered himself entirely to the ways of the woods, and his feral, near-mute son Stefan (Alex van Wyk). She may have been better off alone.
For even as Barend and Stefan patiently tend to her wounds, there’s an undertow of hostility to their care. “Gaia” is most intriguing as it invites us to figure out the strange, tilted power dynamic between the three of them, though the more teasingly it suggests a greater malevolent entity dictating their behavior outside the cabin, the less tense the film somehow gets. The symbolic lines of conflict are drawn early on, with Gabi — albeit a professional conservationist — a figure of human civilization pitted against an untamed natural landscape that fights back, colonizing bodies in a literal and visual poetic reversal of the deforestation process.
Yet Barend’s position as the middle man in this struggle, part invader and part nature’s servant, is sketchily conceived. His cultish religious convictions never come into focus, beyond feeding the film’s general aura of menace, while chemistry-free romantic overtures between Gabi and Stefan feel like a screenwriter’s last resort. All three principals, at least, fare better than poor Winston, who succumbs to the most unwelcome of tropes concerning lone Black characters in horror films.
As a feat of carefully imagined, economically realized world-building, however, “Gaia” compels to the end, making the most of the natural resources at its disposal while constructing its own dreamy, tactile visions. Cinematographer Jorrie van der Walt works in a queasy khaki palette that aptly blends flesh and foliage in the shadows, playing up the majesty and mystery of the landscape without resorting to postcard vistas. Over that rustic, rustling backdrop, visual effects supervisor Wim van der Merwe and makeup designer Sulani Saayman work some dark combined magic, as Gabi’s recurring nightmares of being consumed by the forest edge closer to waking reality. If Bouwer persistently keeps the great outdoor enemy just out of view, sound designers Tim Pringle and Melani Robertson ensure we hear its every croak, creak and eerie whistle. These trees need no Lorax or crusading environmentalist to speak for them. In “Gaia,” we hear their threats loud and clear.