By: Kayla Caldwell
Much like the infamous Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining, nature feels like a character in and of itself in GAIA, from director Jaco Bouwer. In watching the beginning of the film, the phrase that came to mind was “unrelenting wilderness.” It’s got you surrounded, and you truly don’t know what secrets - or dangers - it holds within. Forest ranger Gabi (Monique Rockman) learns that the hard way after she and her partner Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) lose their drone. Unfortunately for them, and unbeknownst to them, the device has already been picked up by off-the-grid survivalist Barend (Carel Nel) and his son, Stefan (Alex van Dyk).
Barend and Stefan are completely covered in mud, and the former is honestly terrifying in the way that the dad was in Robert Eggers’ The Witch. Initially, we watch as Gabi and Winston venture into the woods, separately, which seems quite obviously ill-advised. But even we don’t quite know how ill-advised until later. Then Gabi steps in what must have been a trap set by the survivalists, and hurts her foot. (Note: We’re talking a pointy stick going all the way through her foot.) Meanwhile, I’m genuinely wondering if Winston is qualified for this job. He accidentally wets his radio so he can’t hear Gabi calling, and then trudges through an unknown body of water as if it couldn’t just open up and swallow him whole. Not that it matters anyway.
We’re getting glimpses of this woodland creature that looks sort of like that freaky hand-eye monster from Pan’s Labyrinth meets a demogorgan from Stranger Things, meets a mushroom. And with sequences such as “double dream” fake-outs, it kind of feels like I’m on shrooms while I’m watching this. That’s not at all to say that it’s bad, just very, very weird. However, it’s a weird that is admirably beautiful, and entrancing. I imagine it would be a fun movie to watch shrooms to, but I digress with the drug talk.
GAIA is a lot of things, but most importantly, and most understandably, it’s about nature. It’s about how terrible humans and their technologies and single-use products are destroying the planet. Think of it as a less-cartoonish WALL-E, but the focus isn’t on the fat, useless humans, but rather the hero, and the villain, is simply, the Earth. As I type this, I realize the more apt Disney-fied version of GAIA would be Te Kā of Moana, attacking who she believes to be the people who ruined her fine land.
In GAIA we see both the beauty of nature, and what makes it absolutely terrifying. What if, instead of slowly and quietly shriveling away into nothing, nature fought back? Aptly, in GAIA, nature doesn’t fight the way men do. It’s not about bloodshed or trophies. In being defeated, the foes in GAIA simply become one with the Earth. And in the end, isn’t the kind of the truth for all of us?
GAIA is strange - don’t get me wrong. In my initial viewing of it, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. For one, I’ll try not to spoil, but let’s just say that anyone who suffers from Trypophobia might find certain scenes involving Gabi, and let’s call it, a “rash” on her skin, a bit disturbing. However, in writing this review I realized how darkly beautiful GAIA actually is. I mean, aside from the fact that sex is made out to be some revolting, human sin - although I see the point Bouwer was making with that, what with the comparison to the Garden of Eden from the Bible.
In GAIA, the people are the sickness, and nature is the only cure. GAIA is The Witch, but for tree huggers, rather than Salem Witch Trial nerds. It’s a visually-stunning, albeit confusing work of art, and it’s worth the watch if not to simply shake up a smattering of less-than-stellar slashers while we all eagerly await the release of Nia DaCosta’s Candyman.
For a hell of a ride, check out GAIA in theaters June 18, and on demand June 25.