Gaia had its UK première at FrightFest 2021
Sometimes you wait for one movie involving fungal fear and freakery to come along, and several arrive at once. The latest cycle probably started with Naughty Dog’s 2013 video game The Last Of Us, Corin Hardy’s The Hallow (2015), Colm McCarthy’s The Girl With All The Gifts (2016) and Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018), and recently there has been a mushrooming efflorescence of fungal genre films like Arseny Syuhin’s Superdeep (2020), Ben Wheatley’s In The Earth (2021) and D.M. Cunningham’s The Spore (2021). With its focus on the ‘mycorrhizal mat’ of a woodland environment, its female forest ranger as protagonist, and the early prominence of a grave foot injury, Jaco Bouwer’s Gaia most closely resembles Wheatley’s film, although there is also plenty of variation to be found in the dense, fecund undergrowth.
Separated from her colleague Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) while searching for a missing drone deep in the forest, the wounded ranger Gabi (Monique Rockman) staggers and falls in with mud-covered survivalist hunter-gatherer Barend (Carel Nel) and his taciturn teenage son Stefan (Alex van Dyk). Ever since his beloved wife Lily succumbed to bone cancer, one-time scientist Barend has turned his back on humanity and lost himself to life off-grid in the verdant forest, where he and Stefan are now devoted to a nurturing mother of a different kind (even as Stefan’s real mother still lies in situ, worshipped if no longer loved). Grudgingly taking the outsider in, Barendt intends to send Gabi on her way back to the city as soon as possible, perceiving her modern tech and even her sexuality as a threat to the delicate ecosystem that he has established with his adolescent son – but as Gabi bears witness to the strange goings-on all around, she decides to stay on, at least until she can persuade Stefan to leave with her. In return for continuing to support human life within it, though, the forest demands sacrifice.
Named after the Earth goddess invoked not just for ancient cult worship but also for a global principle of ecology, Gaia may present itself for the most part as a tensely intimate domestic three-hander, but it also offers nature’s revenge, monstrous parasitic hybrids, folk horror, psychedelic psychotronic psilocybin-inf(l)ected freakouts, and ultimately the seeds (or spores) of apocalypse. Its environmentalist preoccupations could not be more of the moment, and if it applies something of the pathetic fallacy to its personifications of nature, it nonetheless remains refreshingly unsentimental. For here nature is a cruel, demanding mother, merciful only when there is symbiotic advantage, and otherwise unforgiving and destructive. Perhaps she has learnt a trick or two from the species that represents the greatest threat to her. Working from a nuanced screenplay by his regular collaborator Tertius Kapp, and with superb sound recording and design from Leith Morkel and Tim Pringle, Bouwer has crafted an enigmatic prelude to the approaching end of the Anthropocene, where love, though real, is relegated to the past tense.
strap: Jaco Bouwer’s nature’s revenger sows the spores of ecological apocalypse in a tense woodland cabin for three
© Anton Bitel