Fungi are terrifying. Neither plants nor animals, they can communicate across vast forest networks and have existed on Earth for approximately one billion years. These ancient, whispering beings surround us at all times no matter what kind of environment we live in. GAIA, the new South African horror film from director Jaco Bouwer and writer Tertius Kapp, explores the terror that we often forget lies just below our feet.
Gabi (Monique Rockman) and Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) are forestry service employees checking their remote cameras and performing an aerial study of the wilderness. When their drone gets lost, they separate despite Winston’s warning that people often go missing in these woods. Hilariously, Winston chides Gabi for not realizing she’s in a horror movie: “Sometimes you’re just like those whities. ‘Danger!’ ‘Where? Ooh, lemme go see.’” Gabi assures Winston that she’ll be fine and goes off in search of the grounded drone. She is, of course, not fine. She’s soon injured by a trap set by mysterious forest dwellers Barend (Carel Nel) and his son Stefan (Alex van Dyk), who take care of her in their cabin and teach her about the bizarre fungal dangers that lurk in the forest.
To get a sense of the tone of this ecological body horror film, think Annihilation meets Hannibal’s “Amuse-Bouche” with a touch of Midsommar. If that sounds like a few too many ideas or themes, it is: the script overreaches and falls flat at times, relying too much on dream-within-a-dream sequences and failing to cohesively combine environmentalist and anti-consumerist messages with religious iconography. The attempt is compelling, though, and the film will linger in viewers’ minds despite any narrative shortcomings.
Where GAIA truly excels is in its striking, poetic visuals. The film opens on an aerial shot of the forest canopy that sways and squirms in an unsettling dance that makes Nature seem anything but natural. The drone shot continues as it inverts and then travels over a river, upending the viewer’s perspective in a stunningly disorienting sequence. The creature designs are similarly disturbing. The viewer realizes immediately who and what these beings are, but that doesn’t make them any less horrific. This tension between recognition and revulsion adds a strong undercurrent of suspense that pushes the film forward even in its quiet moments.
The final scene of the film is intentionally jarring and raises questions about the reckoning that Barend warned Gabi would soon come to humanity. Fungi and decay often go hand in hand. GAIA suggests that civilization’s decay is inevitable, perhaps even deserved, though that doesn’t make its certainty anything other than terrifying.
Jaco Bouwer’s GAIA will be available in theaters on June 18th, and will be released On Demand on June 25th.