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Gaia starring Monique Rockman - (SXSW Horror Movie Review)

Gaia starring Monique Rockman - (SXSW Horror Movie Review)
5 10

Story: After getting lost in the woods, a park ranger finds herself stranded in a small cabin with a father and son who have been living in the forest, and have dedicated their lives to an ancient, mysterious entity living in the woods.

Review:  If horror movies have taught us anything, it’s that everything in the woods is out to kill you. Giant Beasts? Demons? Witches? Witched in gingerbread houses? New England Witches? Crazed Rednecks? Should you get lost in the forest, one or more of the above will likely be your doom. In the new eco-horror film Gaia, it’s the forest itself that poses the real terror, but for all the interesting ideas and bucking of conventions that make it admirable, very little of the execution makes for either compelling drama or palpable horror befitting of its dark setting.

Of course, there’s a natural uneasiness about a dense forest at night that’s nigh impossible to not capture, and director Jaco Bouwer (making his directorial movie debut, shifting away from his work on the stage), sets out to try and craft an unnerving story (written by Tertius Kapp) around what lives deep, deep in the trees. Hailing from South Africa, the film opens with a drone shot that glides high above the seemingly endless sea of trees, with no time wasted centering on the story’s lead – Gabi (Monique Rockman). Doing some surveillance in the wild with her fellow park ranger, Winston (Anthony Oseyemi), she gets lost hunting for their fallen drone, and then injured by a makeshift boobytrap. After hobbling to a nearby cabin she ends up trapped there with a father and son who have spent the last decade or so living there and, to say the least, have been doing their own thing. Mix this unfortunate circumstance with the presence of vicious forest creatures that also happen to be on the loose, and Gabi is pretty much in it for the long haul now.

The cracks in Gaia’s structure begin to show even in the earliest moments, as Kapp’s storytelling and Bouwer’s approach are all too eager to thrust the characters – particularly Gabi – into this singular scenario. There is no time to establish her as a person, with her earliest scenes spent getting lost and injured in the woods, only to leave her stuck in a shack with these two men who look like they’ve been zapped in from another time. There’s no exploration into who she is, what she wants, what her convictions are, and as a result, it’s easy to feel just as stranded in the story as a viewer as she is in the shack.

Bouwer’s interest in the story clearly lies in the father – Barend (Carel Nel) – who has a cult-like fanaticism towards the luminous, mysterious entity in the woods that he refers to as a god. With him is his nigh-mute son, Stefan (Alex van Dyk), who is an innocent victim of his father’s obsession, when he’s not being a creep staring too long at Gabi. In Barend, all the movie’s themes are tucked away – from the crazed, religious ideology to the clash of natural law and modernism – whiling away his days jotting down his manifesto like an angry grad student, calling the Industrial Revolution “nothing short of a declaration of war.” While it’s easy to view him as a crackpot, there’s indeed a subversion in how it’s possible to view him as simply a man who accepted long ago the inevitable – that nature will eventually retake everything. Nel dishes out a welcome dose of gonzo as Barend gets more and more manic, desperately wanting to please the god of the forest.

All the while, Gabi has to listen to his ramblings while the forest entity is causing her to have trippy visions, and soon, causing for fungus growths to sprout up all over her body – which she looks at as if it were an annoying rash in need of some ointment. Again, there’s a subversion of the survival thriller trope here, in that Gabi doesn’t spend time actively becoming more badass and evolving into some sort of hero, but constantly remains in a vulnerable position and at the mercy of her surroundings. Rockman brings a physicality to Gabi that conveys a quiet uneasiness during the more trying times, which gives Gabi some much-needed dimension. Even with a sluggish pace and bland storytelling, she and Nel do a decent enough job of keeping your eyes on the screen when little else does.

However, while the exploration of the deeper themes is constant, the execution makes it hard to feel connected to what’s happening on screen, with no narrative momentum beyond that something weird is going on. Gabi adapts to her surroundings rather than find ways to escape, and while that keeps her alive, it robs the story of any sense of conflict or tension to build within the claustrophobic setting. There’s a routineness to watching father and son go about their created rituals as Gabi observes, occasionally having more nightmares and noticing more fungal growth on her body, with not much of the atmospheric tension Bouwer was so clearly going for feeling remotely present. She eventually grows closer with Stefan, and her desire to help him escape finally gives her character something to grab onto. But even with that angle, so much of her character feels there to act in service to the father and son – either as someone for the father to scream at about the folly of mankind’s technology or to give the son a way to escape his loony pops. When it comes time for her to gear up and have her triumphant moment – one that feels like it has been actively avoided for much of the movie – it feels stumbled upon and rudderless, with still nothing about her own journey and personality being developed enough to give the story any stakes.

But oh, I’ve forgotten to mention the creature-feature angle. The presence of nasty monsters among the woods feels there primarily to give some semblance of atmosphere and suspense (hence why Gabi can’t just sprint for it when her foot is healed) when needed, being more of a convenience for when the narrative needs some sort of action. They aren’t even around or even mentioned for much of the middle act, only to pop back up again for the final act. What could perhaps take some viewers out of the experience – much like it did me – is the creatures themselves, which fans of The Last of Us video games will instantly recognize as a blatant rip-off of the games’ Clicker creatures. Like those terrifying baddies, these creatures are covered in massive fungal protrusions, have melted-looking skin, make guttural clicking/screaming noises and, to top it all off, are very much blind. You wouldn't be blamed for thinking this whole movie actually started as a fan film and they didn't have any money to re-do the creatures. Worse yet, here they seem less scary up close, with awkward action staging of some of the action coming off clunky and confusing.

Admittedly, Bouwer has a knack for visuals, with what must’ve been a huge chunk of the budget going towards a few trippy visual effects that may remind some viewers of a low-rent Annihilation, making Gaia at least interesting to look at from time to time, even when the thematic power of the visuals is dulled by a lack of emotional energy. Certain moments have the bizarreness of typical indie-horror fare, and that trippy sensation may be the moment when you realize this movie is entirely your jam or a waste of your brain function. Rooting out the key themes of inevitability and accepting it has been most rewarding to think back on, but considering how the interesting ideas are wrapped in a sluggish execution that makes its 95-minute runtime feel like a stretch, this is one trip into the deep, dark woods I only recommend to the keenest purveyors of eco-terror.

Tags: Gaia, horror, review, SXSW

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