In precise, aerial grace, Gaia captures the beauty of South Africa’s Tsitsikamma Forest. Full, evergreen trees scrape the blue sky. Sounds of wildlife: bugs, critters, and mysterious creatures whisper throughout the wood. And the lakes, glossy and still, mirror the shape of a forestry drone as it flies above the landscape. The entry point of Gaia is unforgettable, to say the least.
Written by Tertius Kapp and directed by Jacob Bower, this ecological thriller is an astounding cinematic work that pays homage to the pain Mother Nature endures due to the selfishness of humankind. The film seeps symbolism in the most beautiful way — through breathtaking imagery and intellectual metaphors. Ultimately, Gaia demands ecological liberation. However, it illustrates that the only way this can be achieved is through total destruction. In incredible detail, Gaia demonstrates the merciless wrath of Mother Nature through its one of a kind visual compositions and complex craft of its characters.
Despite the beauty of that opening scene, one can’t ignore the tension thickening the air. The forest is eerie, quietly grotesque, and lacking the vibrancy associated with warmth and positivity. It is obvious something is amiss. Combined with the echoes of strange wildlife and the haunting soundtrack, it’s concluded this patch of land is not quite welcoming of others. The drone flies into the brush, soon discovering the piercing eyes of a man dressed from head to toe in dark mud (Alex Van Dyck). Upon capturing his image, the drone is destroyed. As Winston, a forestry ranger (Anthony Oseyemi) reluctantly follows his employee, Gabi (Monique Rockman) to pick up the remains of the drone, he warns her that people go missing in this forest, confirming the danger previously alluded to.
But that’s not all. No, as the two descend into the forest in search for the broken drone, they’re separated, met with hidden traps, mysterious survivalists, and of course, giant fungi monsters on the hunt for human hosts. While Winston is being chased through the brush by a terrifying creature with shriveled wood for skin and a mushroom for a head, Gabi— severely wounded— limps towards a deep crimson light in the middle of the woods— a symbol of the forest’s furious heart and merciless intentions.
In ‘Gaia,’ Sins Against Nature Are Unforgivable
In these early captures of the forest, Bower and Kapp really draw out the unforgiving voice of nature. To the naked eye, the land is gorgeous and flourishing. But beneath the evergreen exterior, as the drone covers its piercing stillness, the audience is reminded the roots, the lakes, the life of the natural world is slowly dying. And, as is emphasized as the films goes on, at the hands of humans — an offense that will not go unpunished. This slight against the Earth in Gaia serves as an unforgivable sin. Each character, despite their guile or nurturing nature, has sinned in some way, even if it is just existing as a contribution to the world’s pollution. And for it, they all meet an excruciating demise at the hands of the flesh devouring fungi.
Take the clearer example of Barend, (Carel Nel). One of two survivalists, he takes his devotion to the forest to the absolute extreme. He worships nature as a goddess, noting it is the largest organism in the world, even writing an extremely diluted manifesto of nature’s superiority and the inevitable annihilation of the “apes,” as he refers to humans. In order to survive in the forest against the fungal disease, he gives the goddess blood offerings — of animals mostly, but eventually, even his own son, Stefan (Alex Van Dyck) becomes a necessary sacrifice. His sin lies in his own extremism and in the end, his failure to provide the goddess with her desired offering. For this, he is left bleeding and begging for mercy while the fungus spreads and devours him completely.
No Escape From Nature’s Wrath
But not even the most seemingly good-hearted characters are able to escape nature’s wrath in accordance with Gaia’s theme. Gabi and Stefan, the supposed heroine and hero, are met with a tragic fate as well. In nature’s eyes, Gabi represents the corruption of the industrial world and all its temptation. She is the figure that tears Stefan from his contentment alongside his father in the woods, and in order to save him, interferes with the wishes of the goddess during Barend’s attempts to sacrifice him. For this, she is swallowed up by the sickness, the outline of her body remaining beneath a mound of mushroom.
And Stefan, the soft-spoken hunter who never truly had a choice, strips himself of his perceived innocence when he betrays his father and, after Gabi’s death, tries to rebuild in the modern world. But the audience watches him chew on a fast food meal in the final shot of the film, there is something peculiar about the dish. When he leaves his trash on the table and exits, a lump of fungi begins to grow in the leftovers. It is a clear sign he’s never truly escaped the forest. And, that Mother Nature’s secret weapon has finally found its way into the modern world — hungry for revenge and destruction.
Gaia is far more than a horror movie. It is a deep and terrifying message of what consequences await if the Earth continues to be mistreated. The film asks us if we will hear the warning and change our ways — or, if we will continue down the path of ecological destruction, destroying every chance we have at gaining forgiveness from Mother Nature.