FILM REVIEW: The monster within: ‘Gaia’ is the guilt trip we all need right now

A good horror film is like an endurance event. I say this because I’m completely convinced that a lot of the energy consumed while watching scary movies goes into trying to convince ourselves that we’ve got the story all neatly figured out. That we know what’s coming, that we understand the end-game; we even believe we know who will have survived by the time the credits roll. 

If we have a handle on things, then we can endure, we can make it through the thrills and chills and the skriks along the way. 

They’re also endurance events in that they are physical experiences – we feel their impacts viscerally. A good horror movie causes your body to rock and roll in your seat, makes you squirm, jump, scream, cover your eyes. Well, that’s me. I’m a ninny. But would a horror film be half as much fun if you watched it reactionless, cold to the emotional tremors it’s capable of sending up and down your spine? 

Anthony Oseyemi and Monique Rockman in “Gaia”. Image: Supplied
Anthony Oseyemi in "Gaia".
Anthony Oseyemi in “Gaia”. Image: Supplied
Carel Nel and Monique Rockman in "Gaia".
Carel Nel and Monique Rockman in “Gaia”. Image: Supplied
Carel Nel as Barend in "Gaia".
Carel Nel as Barend in “Gaia”. Image: Supplied
Carel Nel in _Gaia_
Carel Nel in “Gaia”. Image: Supplied

A good horror film short-circuits the brain, sends signals straight to your fight-or-flight impulse zone and scares you out of your wits. 

A cheap-and-nasty horror film will achieve this with hokey cinematic effects. You recognise this stuff as cheesy and yet it’s often hard to escape the impact.

Of course, a very good horror film works multidimensionally, attacking your impulse centre while colonising your intellect, forcing your mind to work, too. The more skilled the scriptwriter and filmmaking team, the more your brain will bliss out on the interweaving of scares and interesting ideas. You come away genuinely frightened because the film has touched a deeper nerve. 

In Bouwer’s film, though, Nature isn’t taking the assault lying down. No, instead, she has recruited the scientist-turned-feral survivalist of the story and has him do her bidding.

Gaia, a supernatural horror film by director Jaco Bouwer, is precisely this kind of thought-provoking experience. It gets under your skin, creeps you out, and leaves you with a lingering sense of terror. By the end of it, you feel fully chastised, because it is a horror film that niftily points its fingers at the audience. It might be guilt, shame or helplessness, but there’s a sense that we humans have reaped what we’ve sown.

Gaia is a beautifully realised film about the horrors being perpetrated against the planet on which we exist.

In Bouwer’s film, though, Nature isn’t taking the assault lying down.

No, instead, she has recruited the scientist-turned-feral survivalist of the story and has him do her bidding. Played by a gifted and terrifying Carel Nel, this guy ­– Barend – has all the markings of a crazy loon who has ingested too many of his own conspiracies, or perhaps taken too many of the mushrooms that are used as a sacrament that’s part of the film’s arsenal of “keep-them-guessing” tricks. 

Barend is one moment the heartbroken widower trying to raise his son and protect him from the follies of modern civilisation, the next instant some sort of frightening doomsday prophet issuing decrees against all of humankind. He is a wraith who zips through the forest like a trained guerrilla, and an agent acting on behalf of Nature. He really keeps us guessing.

As does his son, a wide-eyed Stefan (Alex van Dyk) who is on the cusp of manhood – observant, pliable, unschooled in the ways of the world, but fully conversant in the secret language of the primordial forest in which he lives – and earmarked as some sort of saviour. Only, you’re going to second-guess yourself a lot before you find out precisely what kind of saviour he might be. 

Carel Nel plays Barend in "Gaia".
Carel Nel plays Barend in “Gaia”. Image: Supplied
Carel Nel stars as Barend in "Gaia".
Carel Nel stars as Barend in “Gaia”. Image: Supplied
Carel Nel, Monique Rockman and Alex van Dyk in "Gaia".
Carel Nel, Monique Rockman and Alex van Dyk in “Gaia”. Image: Supplied
Monique Rockman as Gabi in "Gaia".
Monique Rockman as Gabi in “Gaia”. Image: Supplied
Monique Rockman as Gabi.
Monique Rockman as Gabi. Image: Supplied
Monique Rockman in "Gaia".
Monique Rockman in “Gaia”. Image: Supplied

Of course, every horror film needs its protagonists, characters through whose eyes we experience the chills and spills and who help us try to figure out what the hell is going on. Enter Gabi (Monique Rockman, channelling Lara Croft) and Winston (Anthony Oseyemi), naïve strangers in a world that is not entirely their own. They putter into the film following a water channel in the middle of a dense jungle. The precise location is never revealed, but there is a fierce sense of disconnection from the civilised world. It’s majestic, but also dimly lit, deeply threatening and seemingly alive. 

And, of course, this is no nature documentary. Instead, the two intruders are in for a bumpy ride as they stumble into the private world inhabited by Barend and Stefan. 

Some of what’s deeply disconcerting about this film concerns its almost prophetic timing.

The film has horror tropes oozing from its pores (sometimes literally). Apart from the dislocation and isolation rendered by the middle-of-nowhere setting, there are literal monsters and psychological demons; there’s the strange and ominous “something” in the woods; there’s that creepy guy uttering woo-woo conspiracy theories; there are the strange fungi growing from living human flesh; and there are masterful overlaps with religious prophesy that add more than a frisson of gut-wrenching terror. 

It delivers all the hellish moments and techniques that horror fans adore: visceral body horror, jumpy stalking scenes and nifty cinematography that simultaneously disorientates you while making you feel that something frightening is almost always about to attack. But it also gives you plenty more. 

Some of what’s deeply disconcerting about this film concerns its almost prophetic timing. No one could have foretold, for example, that aspects of the narrative would connect with the viral pandemic that at one point was a threat to the film getting made. The film almost supernaturally hints at the idea of Mother Nature – Gaia herself – taking matters into her own hands, sending a submicroscopic contagion to infect us, cut humankind down to size and start afresh. 

But, even more breathtakingly, that contagion is spread through the air, and – talk about hitting the current zeitgeist squarely between the eyes – you ideally need a mask to prevent yourself from contracting it. If you do get it, you will beg to be killed later.

And if that’s not spooky enough, wait until the Biblical references begin to stack up, as ancient parables reveal themselves as Gaia’s plot reveals itself. 

Yes, there are sacrifices to be made, and there’s a Chosen One. 

It is a parable, a kind of fable from the depths of our storytelling tradition: We are destroying Mother Earth and in doing so also sacrificing our own children.

On top of all its successful attempts to frighten, shock and emotionally unhinge us, Gaia has built into it what might be described as a kind of cinematic poetry; there’s a lyricism to the contradictions and paradoxes that are established. It’s Earth, Gaia, Nature herself who is the monster, but of course in the hands of capable filmmakers and storytellers, that realisation is twisted in on itself, and – like a lot of the great horror films – the monster is allegorical; Earth is herself the victim. And we humans the perpetrators. 

Alex van Dyk and Carel Nel in "Gaia".
Alex van Dyk and Carel Nel in “Gaia”. Image: Supplied
Alex van Dyk and Monique Rockman in "Gaia".
Alex van Dyk and Monique Rockman in “Gaia”. Image: Supplied
Alex van Dyk in "Gaia".
Alex van Dyk in “Gaia”. Image: Supplied
Alex van Dyk plays Stefan in "Gaia".
Alex van Dyk plays Stefan in “Gaia”. Image: Supplied
Alex van Dyn as Stefan in "Gaia".
Alex van Dyn as Stefan in “Gaia”. Image: Supplied

Ultimately it’s an ecological revenge movie. It is a parable, a kind of fable from the depths of our storytelling tradition: We are destroying Mother Earth and in doing so sacrificing our own children. 

And so it gets right what is near impossible to achieve in this genre – it delivers a message that is so tender and heartbreaking and sad that the final moments left me with tears in my eyes.

Why? Because this film is ultimately a requiem for Earth. 

There is much about Gaia that must be commended, over and above the message. There are performances that grip you; there is the lushness and majesty of the location; there’s the sumptuous cinematography; there are the fantasy creatures, the beautiful mushrooms and the genuinely fantastic effects. And the music is haunting and spectacular. You are at times unsure whether what you’re hearing is the score or part of the soundtrack of the world of the narrative. It is technically a high-calibre achievement. 

Most of all, though, one has to give credit to a film that keeps you guessing right till the very end. It’s in the clever layering of narrative elements, the embedding of tropes, and the dab hand with which the writer and director have brought an original, imaginative spin to the genre, producing a scary movie worth enduring. DM/ML

Gaia has already won a number of international awards and was named best feature film at the Silwerskerm Film Festival last month. It appeared on several lists of top horror films of 2021. There are screenings of it at The Labia in Cape Town on 22 and 23 April, and at The Bioscope in Johannesburg on 23, 28 and 29 April, and it’s available to watch on DStv BoxOffice from 22 April. boxoffice.dstv.com

 

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FILM REVIEW: The monster within: ‘Gaia’ is the guilt trip we all need right now

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