Review: Mother Earth is Not Playing in Creepy 'Gaia'

by Kevin Taft

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday June 18, 2021

'Gaia'  (Source:Neon)

Like this year's "In the Earth," the Nic Cage H.P. Lovecraft adaptation "The Color Out of Space," "Annihilation," and even "The Happening" before it, the new eco-horror movie "Gaia" uses the threat of nature to creep audiences out in new and unsettling ways.

Traveling down a swampy river in a South African primordial forest, a park ranger named Gabi (Monique Rockman) is injured and separated from her boss after her drone goes missing. She is eventually taken in by a mysterious father and son who tend to her wounds, utilizing all that nature affords them.

The two men, Barend (Carel Nel) and son Stefan (Alex van Dyk), live as if they are leftovers from a destroyed dystopian future; making home in a sturdy but small cabin, wearing raggedy clothing, and seemingly worshiping the forest itself.

While the two seem odd, they don't appear threatening; in fact, something in the woods proves to be much worse: Strange beings that are both part foliage and part humanoid.

All of this is too much for Gabi, who simply wants to heal, find her boss, and get back to civilization. But Barend doesn't feel she should; in fact, he doesn't feel like anyone should live in the modern world, and he has a raging manifesto to prove it.

Meanwhile, Gabi has strange dreams, wakes up to colorful fungi coming out of her skin, and eventually starts to suspect that Barend isn't all there mentally. At the same time, she takes a motherly shine to Stefan, and realizes the kid needs something more than what he's getting being trapped with his dad.

Gabi decides she needs to figure out how to take Stefan with her and get out of the forest without suffering the psychology of Barend, and the consequences of the progressively threatening forest around them.

Director Jaco Bouwer utilizes beautifully unsteady cinematography and unnerving sound design to keep the characters and the audience off balance. He slowly unravels uncomfortable realities that inform how our lead characters interact with each other, and whatever is stalking them outside.

Rockman is a solid actress here, and carries the movie on her (mostly) unknown shoulders (at least to American audiences). She creates a character that is very much aware of the dangers around her, but allows Gabi to still have a curiosity about not only the father and son, but about what they've discovered inside the forest. She's at once frightened by what might happen to her, but also uncontrollably intrigued.

When Nel gives an angry speech about the modern world Gabi comes from, you see how insane he can look, but some of what he says isn't so far off the mark. And Gabi recognizes it, which is why it's so hard for her to leave.

This is what makes "Gaia" so intriguing and entertaining. It's an artsy, esoteric film for sure, but it also mixes in a dose of creature feature fun that will keep those willing to give it a try a thrill.

There's a lot to bite off in this forest, and it's thought-provoking for sure, but make no mistake: There are scenes that will make your hair stand up and your skin crawl like there's something lurking underneath it.

This Mother Earth is one nasty motherf**ker.

"Gaia" opens in theaters June 18 and will be available on demand June 25

Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to 'Star Wars' and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg.