Gaia (2021) - Winston succumbs to the shrooms

Gaia (2021) – Atmospheric Eco-Horror of the Unsettling Variety


The South African film Gaia (2021) feels very familiar. With the recent release of The Last of Us (2023), and considering that series being rooted in the 2013 video game of the same name, many of the aspects of Gaia could be considered straight-up copies of some of the ideas and imagery. Directed by Jaco Bouwer, Gaia demonstrates that it’s not always what you show on screen, but rather, what it means. Whereas The Last of Us tells a tale of survival in a world gone mad. Gaia instead tells a story of a disrespected mother hell bent on revenge.

Gaia (2021) - Berand, Stefan and Gabi discuss the rape of the natural world
Berand, Stefan and Gabi discuss the rape of the natural world

In the forest

The film begins with two forest rangers propelling down a river through the deep Tsitsikamma forest. Gabi, and her boss, Winston, are using a drone to scan the canopy of the forest. When a human captures her drone and destroys it, she feels compelled to retrieve it. What she doesn’t know is that a trap was set for them for them. The trap, a spring loaded stake, impales her foot. She struggles to drag herself through the woods until she happens upon a cabin. Unbeknownst to her, Barend and his son Stefan live in the cabin and they are the same people behind her predicament.

Rise of the shroom boom

The undercurrent of the film involves the rise of forest. The vector in which it chooses to take its revenge is through fungi. Barend and Stefan are painfully and emotionally connected to the forest and they understand the bubbling resentment boiling beneath the forest floor. Mother nature seeks to lash out against the concrete and steel jungles that have scarred her body. Barend and Stefan know the plan and intend to usher in the nature’s overthrow. Their plot slowly pulls Gabi into the fold.

Gaia (2021) - If it looks like a clicker, and it sounds like a clicker...
If it looks like a clicker, and it sounds like a clicker…

A perfect amalgamation of styles

Out of the gate, Gaia smashes the viewer in the teeth with dynamic and high-flying drone shots of the forest. The scenery is absolutely stunning and and the flyovers fantastic. The entirety of the film envelopes the audience in the dark beauty of the forest. First and foremost, Gaia is a seriously atmospheric affair. Through this atmosphere, Bouwer conveys both the bustling life of of the forest, and the anguish of the personified Earth. He exemplifies the cyclical aspects and of how decay on the forest floor begets the next generation of life.

This gripping undercurrent forms the connective tissue for everything else that happens. In fact, these aspects of Bouwer’s film could stand on their own without the Hollywood horror bits to carry it.

On-top of this rich foundation, Gaia then adds a thick layer of deeply disturbing body horror to the mix. In short, the fungus infects humans and the creeping of the mycelium (Think mushroom roots) parts flesh, consumes eyeballs and explodes in fungal blooms from the human envelope. The bloody intersections of human and fungal flesh causes a chill to run up the spine as they are painfully pulled from the skin.

Speaking of body horror, Jaco Bouwer clearly shares some of his visual and cinematographic philosophies with up and coming body horror protégé Brandon Cronenberg.

Not a fungi to be with

Going back to the points raised in the introduction, there is another series that explores the collision of humanity and fungus. The Last of Us also creates a world where fungus infects human flesh. Once this infection takes root, it creates blind human / fungus hybrids that seek to infect anything they can find. Here is what Gaia does different. It creates a world where fungus infects human flesh. Once this infection takes root, it creates blind human hybrids that seek to infect anything they can find. Wait… IT’S EXACTLY THE SAME. THEY EVEN FREAKING LOOK THE SAME.

It goes even farther than that. In both stories, these creatures Blind because the fungus growth has consumed the soft flesh of the eyeballs. Their heads erupt with mushrooms and lichens. They speak in clicks, presumably because they use those clicks to echo locate their victims. The similarities are FAR too close to be accidental. The viewer is given a choice. You are either okay with this, or you need to leave. I highly recommend that you stick around because even though these films share imagery, their goals and reasons for existing are completely different.

Gaia (2021) - Winston succumbs to the shrooms
Winston succumbs to the shrooms

Eco-horror versus Eco-horror adjacent

The difference between Gaia and its doppelganger The Last of Us is their reasons for existing. Whereas The Last of Us uses a post-apocalyptic world cause by global warming as a backdrop, it rarely delves into the minutiae of how we got here and why we as human beings are culpable. This backdrops explains why the building crumble, and why civilization flounders, but it never really gets to real question of why nature chose to revolt in such a catastrophic way. In The Last of Us, the world is just a physical place, non-living and non-feeling.

Gaia goes the exact opposite direction. It tells the tale of the spiritual journey that brings a modern woman back to the womb of the Earth. The Earth is a living breathing organism with feelings. More importantly, it possesses a long memory. Brouwer evokes an emotional bond by examining Berand’s relationship with nature. His connection to Earth go much deeper than that of appreciation. Barend and his family shares a physical bond with the planet.

If Brouwer’s message had not been fully received by the 3/4 mark of the film, Barend lays it explicitly through a monologue shouting down the sins of “neon buildings” and the rape of mother Earth. This film is about the ecological disaster befalling man, not survival after the fact.

Brilliant, Exquisite and Fantastic

If you could not already tell, this movie is incredible. It hits intellectually, visually and emotionally. The final product is beautiful and profound. The characters are authentic and deep. Motivations are simple on the surface, but complex as the movie unravels. Gaia is a slow, slow burn, but it paces its revelations so perfectly that it never feels like a slog. Even in its slowest moments, it is visually captivating. Gaia may be one of the most profound representatives of the eco-horror sub-genre.

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2 Responses

  1. Wow! 5 stars from you, Dave? I thought that was just reserved for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 🙂 I’ll definitely have to check this one out.

    1. Hah! I have a few more 5’s out there than Texas Chainsaw, but the bar is pretty high. I did really enjoy this one, but I’ll be the first to confess that it won’t appeal to everyone. It’s definitely more cerebral for anyone into that.

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