SXSW Review ‘Gaia’: Surviving The Forest For The Trees

Mother nature has a way of surviving despite what man can do, so when a young ranger, Gabi, played by Monique Rockman explores the deepest parts of uncharted forest things get horrific as ancient fungi-like creatures attempt to turn her body into a giant lichen.

Jaco Bouwer’s Gaia premiered at SXSW and he has put together a gorgeously photographed survivalist horror story that explores how the Anthropocene is being challenged by plant-life to become the dominant species. Perpetuating this idea is a young man and his father, Alex van Dyk and Carel Nel respectively, who save Gabi after she is attacked by one of the woodland gods and begins to see symptoms of biological changes to her own body.

Gaia is a gorgeous piece to watch. The forest setting which can sometimes feel redundant has been lit in a way that highlights every crevice, every frost crack in a tree trunk, or nuance of a mushroom. The word “Gaia” itself means “earth goddess” so the director has used that as a focal point and it renders beautifully onscreen.

Rockman is also beautiful as the human whose body may or may not be transforming into that of woodland flora. She brings the character an almost action-hero feel but also a curiosity about how the earth is slowly taking back her original landscape.

Dyk and Carel find a fierceness in their roles as believers who must keep the goddess happy lest she overtakes them and begins her reign as earth’s dominant carbon-based lifeform. Speaking of which, the special effects, when practical, are absolutely marvelous, it’s when they rely on CGI that some might find reason to nit-pick.

Overall Gaia’s narrative has been touched on before. Think Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or Creepshow segment, “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” or to some closer degree, William Friedkin’s 1990 horror film, The Guardian. These movies pose the question of terrestrial supernatural influences on earth that wield power to dominate nature.

Gaia is different in that the force is already inherently earthbound and just waiting to find a host to carry out its plan to infect the global human population. It’s a scary thought, especially as a metaphor for a world recovering from a pandemic.

Not nearly as bleak as it wishes to be, Gaia is still effective with its geological body horror and thought-provoking narrative. These engrossing elements are only part of the picture the director seems to want to illustrate. Still, the world Bouwer has created is a fascinating and visually striking one.

[This review is a part of iHorror’s coverage of the SXSW Film Festival. Release dates and viewing platforms have yet to be determined in some cases. We will give you information on where to watch movies if any are applicable.]

Image credit: Credit: Jorrie van der Walt