Review by Sean Boelman
There are two sides to the festival midnight movie category: campy and fun or disturbing and messed up. Jaco Bouwer’s eco-horror film Gaia falls firmly into the latter, a truly creepy movie that will leave audiences shaken to their core thanks to its brilliantly-crafted suspense and harrowing (if disorganized) messages.
The film follows a park ranger who gets stranded in the wilderness along with two survivalists, soon discovering that there is something terrifying lurking in the forest. Offering shades of The Last of Us and Annihilation, this movie may not have the emotional stakes of either of those, but has plenty of horrific imagery to make it stick in the viewer’s mind.
At first, the film seems like it is going to be a bit of a slow burn, but once things start to go down, it becomes really overwhelming. There is a lot happening at once, and while it can be difficult to follow at times, there is no denying that it’s scary, and there are many layers to dissect and explore upon rewatch.
If the movie does suffer from one thing, it is that it has too much to say. On one hand, the film seems to be about how we as humans interact with the environment. But on the other, it is an exploration of knowledge and how our evolution as a society over the years has led to our survival. These sometimes conflicting themes don’t always mesh together in the most satisfying way.
Additionally, the character development isn’t one of the movie’s strong suits. There are three main characters and one supporting player, and while it’s clear who the audience is supposed to identify with, there isn’t a whole lot of depth to the arcs. Everyone is pretty much filling an archetype, and while this plays to the message, it doesn’t help with the potential emotional distancing.
The standout in the cast is Carel Nel, who gives a superbly menacing turn as the father in the duo of survivalists. It’s a performance that dials into the viewer’s understanding of that type of character without fully embracing it, resulting in a genuinely creepy effect. Monique Rockman is also very good in her role, especially in the second half, in which she is given more to do.
It is on a visual level that the film is most successful. Bouwer takes advantage of his woodsy setting to create an atmosphere that is thoroughly eerie. The gore in the movie isn’t excessive, but when it comes, it’s brutal. And the creature design is magnificent, bringing an expansive quality to the movie.
Gaia is probably this year’s biggest success in the Midnighters category at the SXSW Film Festival, and art house horror audiences will absolutely eat it up. There is always a need for smart and disturbing genre pictures, and this fills that void.
Gaia screened as a part of the online edition of the 2021 SXSW Film Festival, which ran March 16-20.