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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Gaia (2021)

2021 has given us two ecological horror projects that cover very similar themes that were also shot under very similar circumstances. Ben Wheatley’s return to the horror genre had In the Earth undergoing a secret filming production during lockdown, while Gaia had to be shut down midway through filming due to a hard lockdown implemented here in South Africa, not quite knowing if they will be able to return and finish shooting. Both are ecological horrors, survival pictures with its characters fighting with and against the increasingly hostile elements of Mother Nature.

It's hard not to compare Gaia with In the Earth. The similarities between the two films are as clear as day, appropriately relevant and important in understanding our relationship with the planet amid a global pandemic that had moments of the Earth “healing” through social media and various other sources. In the Earth suggests that nature is healing, but a fear remains that we'd return to destroying it before fully understanding its next move. Gaia however, suggest that nature is possibly biding its time for a grand reckoning - swift vengeance enacted by Mother Earth against humanity, focusing more on the ferocity and fear of nature than In the Earth, pushing its ideas and plot towards more ambitious heights that Ben Wheatley should’ve attempted with In the Earth. Gaia does manage to better some of the half-baked ideas and themes found within In the Earth, but not by much as it meanders through a largely pointless and overlong plot much like this review is bound to do. Sorry.

In the Earth was a massive disappointment for me, as I wanted so badly to love it, to get behind Ben Wheatley’s potential return to form. So when I saw Gaia making waves, I was excited. The trailer and plot suggested a more complete and interesting discussion of man’s current relationship with nature and what that holds for us in the future. The plot is similar, but Gaia suggests far more suspense, atmosphere and well, action (for a lack of a better word). Park ranger Gabi (Monique Rockman) paddles with her boss Winston (Anthony Osetemi) as they are on a routine mission of gathering data and footage from various cameras set up in the forest. However, Gabi loses her drone in the woods, forcing her to go recover it. Once she ventures in, things go from bad to worse as she is forced to shack up with two survivalists Barend (Carel Nel) and his son Stefan (Alex van Dyk), who share a ritualistic spiritual relationship with the forest around them as they attempt to survive against the increasingly hostile environment and its monstrous inhabitants.

In the Earth struggled to make sense of what it wanted to say and failed to capitalize on its premise through interesting characters and scenes. Gaia has a better understanding of what it wants to say, and for the briefest of moments, it takes advantage of its thematic talking points by delivering striking, creepy imagery with dashes of searing psychological tension in the odd scene here and there. But there are far too many missteps found throughout that prevent it from being as good as it could've been.

Gaia’s opening moments are promising, with exception to clunky dialogue, director Jaco Bouwer throws us into the mix of things right out the gate, pushing Gabi into the forest where she is soon forced to run from the elements and the creatures occupying the woods. And despite the choice of allowing us to be immersed in the hostile environment so quickly, it’s how we get Winston and Gabi into the forest that is unforgivably lazy. Once Gabi loses her drone, she tells Winston that she needs to go into the forest to fetch it. Winston says no, telling her that people go missing in the woods all the time, she insists on it to which he replies “You’re just like those whiteys. Danger! Oh, where? Let me go see”. But after barely any convincing, he agrees and they split up, despite telling her of the dangers that could befall them. It's a huge sin of pretty much any character in any horror film, and if Gaia was a more humorous piece of self-aware filmmaking, then this would be forgiven instantly as a tongue in cheek observation of the genre's lazy shortfalls. But it isn't. Dumb and illogical character decisions like this make for sloppy writing that completely undermines the potential Gaia has and wants to be in being a smart, slow-burning horror. Gabi seems to be the punching bag for all the stupid decisions that manage to slide into the plot as she makes questionable, illogical and irrational decisions that dumb down Gaia with needless and unwelcome tropes and clichés that are maddening in any modern horror film.

The main cast is comprised of four characters, so there is little room for filler in terms of character involvement and purpose. Unfortunately, the use of Winston downgrades him to a one-dimensional plot device that serves no real purpose to the big picture other than making Gabi feel a certain way in a certain scene, and even then, he makes very little to no impact within the big picture. No character ever reaches the potential that they have in really ramping up the internal and external conflict found within the story. As the protagonist, I never gave a shit about Gabi. I don’t get any indicator of who she is as a character or what her goals are. Her intentions are so fuzzy and irrational, making it impossible to want to root for her. Her burgeoning relationship with Stefan has promise but ultimately goes nowhere in terms of emotional fulfillment, making the entire process feel underwhelming and unconvincing.

Slow-burning horrors like The Witch, for instance, are drenched in atmospheric dread, but each scene has a significant and clear purpose in driving character and plot beats that lead to its inevitable, chilling finale. Gaia has atmosphere in spades. It has great cinematography, music, art direction, prosthetics and suitably effective sound design. But barely any of Gaia's scenes are memorable as poor pacing and aimless scenes of nothingness drag on for ages. It's often a boring blur. When something interesting is about to happen through character development or actually progressing the plot, they give us cop-out sequences that involve Gabi waking up from far too many dreams as well as terribly blocked and stitched together encounters with the creatures that are resolved all too quickly, never really allowing us enough time to be frightened or sweat for the characters. And just when the film gives Barend, the most interesting character in the entire film, a chance to shine through his creepy spiritual encounters with the forest, they give him a cringe-inducing monologue that serves as Gaia's pseudo-intellectual attempt at verbalizing one of the film's overarching themes and ideas to the viewer.

Despite my frustrations with the film's characters, plot and pacing, Gaia really does look and sound great. The atmospheric cinematography lets the film simmer in the darkly mysterious void of nature as it swallows you up, the music is unsettling as it contorts and twists with the forest, the sound of the woods stretches and speaks to us, proving to be excellent elements of terrifying visual and aural world-building. Then there are the creatures. As impressively scary as they are in terms of make-up and prosthetics, they feel like a needless and completely unwelcome inclusion to the film's plot. Like Winston, they bland plot devices that barely add any value to anything whatsoever. It's a pinch of coriander to a meal that really didn't need or want it at all, leaving a bad taste in your mouth. The film works better when we don’t quite understand the sheer magnitude and terror the forest possesses. The scariest moments found within Gaia are when Barend talks and prays with the forest as unsettling shots, sound design and music blend to give us an extended breath of terror that could've carried itself over the entire film as opposed to quick, cheap scares to wake the audience up. Horror films that suggest instead of actually showing us are so much more effective. Not knowing what lies in the dark is often far more scarier than actually seeing what's there as it digs its claws into your psyche. The Witch, Annihilation, The Babadook and It Comes at Night play with the less is more aesthetic in not showing us everything, letting the atmospheric dread weigh us down instead. And although some of these films eventually show the monsters, they hide and reveal them to us conservatively, never cheapening their value as effective tools of metaphorical and literal fears. The forest remains the best and most effective antagonist in the film that is far more purposeful in creating an unknown, grander fear that is all around us. To be honest, I probably wouldn't hate the monsters as much if it wasn't for the fact that they are blatant (and I am talking blatant) ripoffs of the terrifying clickers in the videogame series The Last of Us. They look, move and sound IDENTICAL to them. It just makes Gaia feel like an unofficial, poorly conceived fan-made prequel to The Last of Us - unnecessarily losing creativity points as the film loses grasp of its attempts in trying to be as unique and original as it thinks it is.

Gaia is a film I so badly wanted to love. It’s a local production that has a lot of impressive visual and aural aesthetics going for it, but it is all undone by lackluster management of moving pieces through pacing, character, dialogue and important plot beats. Director Jaco Bouwer and writer Tertius Kapp certainly appear to have had a clear idea of what they wanted to say as well as knowing what they want to happen in Gaia’s beginning, middle and end. But it’s in tying each one of these points together where Gaia muddles and confuses itself, resorting to psychedelic mushroom freak-outs and a pointless excess of dream sequences to stretch the plot out to an unwelcome and overly long running time of 96 minutes.

Where you can watch it: Most VOD platforms (USA)

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