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Friday, June 25, 2021

[Review] Eco-Horror ‘Gaia’ Stuns With Visual Fantasy-Horror Storytelling

At first glance, it’s near impossible to look at the creature designs of this South African horror-fantasy and avoid making comparisons to the highly popular game The Last of Us. The spore-infected humans in Gaia bear more than a passing resemblance to the Clickers, right down to the blindness and sound. In many ways, Gaia could exist within that same universe, pre-apocalypse. It soon becomes clear, though, that while it exists in that same genre space, this slow-burn narrative prefers a different approach to eco-horror by creating a stunning assault on the senses. It’s visual storytelling over traditional or emotional, making for a vastly different and likely polarizing experience.

A routine surveillance mission in a primordial forest results in two park rangers splitting up once their drone goes offline. Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) makes his reservations against splitting up clear, unnerved by the clear danger lurking beyond the safety of their canoe. His partner Gabi (Monique Rockman) assures him that everything will be fine, though, and agrees to meet back in an hour. Almost immediately, Gabi gets caught in a trap and encounters a father and son, Barend (Carel Nel) and Stefan (Alex van Dyk), living a survivalist lifestyle in the forest. The pair thrive on foraging and hunting, and they seem to have their own religion far removed from society. Gabi learns to trust them in their care, especially as she discovers a far greater threat lurking in the area.

Directed by Jaco Bouwer and written by Tertius KappGaia relies heavily on visual storytelling to convey depth and sentiment. There’s an almost abstract quality to the narrative as it slowly unveils the forest’s secrets. Dreamlike jumps from scene to scene and sped up montages of biology on a macro-level provide a near tangible texture to this world. Close-ups of goosebumps erupting on skin as cool air blows against it, or a slow plunge of fingers into the cold, wet earth. An entire stage of fungal growth plays out via time-lapse photography. Bouwer’s direction and Jorrie van der Walt’s breathtaking cinematography build this world through touch, sound, and sight ingeniously and remarkably.

At first, it seems clear that fungal spores are releasing and intentionally retaliating against humanity for crimes committed against nature- most notably evidenced in a brief moment where Barend shows apparent disdain for a plastic bag that floats through his foraging spot. The more Gabi gets to knew Barend and his son, the more their religion paints a more extensive, stranger picture unafraid to lean into yonic imagery. That’s before it gets truly psychedelic, building toward a strange, timely third act. The horror gets gnarly in places, and leans into some great but fleeting body horror moments. Mostly, though, Bouwer favors fantasy elements.

The allegory pulls clearer and clearer into focus the more Gaia shows its hand. In some ways, that makes this lucid dream feel familiar and predictable. It doesn’t help that the lurking creatures in the woods resemble Clickers to an insane degree or that this comes hot on the heels of Ben Wheatley’s thematically similar In the Earth. What sets it apart from the rest is Bouwer’s masterful direction and added texture, so to speak, to a strictly visual and auditory medium. Its folklore is made tactile in an impressive, innovative way. While pacing does tend to sag in parts, the respectable lack of handholding compensates. While it’s not the most accessible type of narrative, nor entirely new, it lures you in with its awe-inspiring sense of wonder and mythical world-building.

Editor’s Note: This SXSW review was originally published on March 17, 2021.

Gaia made its world premiere at SXSW and has been acquired for a summertime release by Decal. The film was released on VOD outlets on Friday, June 25, 2021.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/reviews/3656294/sxsw-review-eco-horror-gaia-stuns-visual-fantasy-horror-storytelling/

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