A newcomer to the thriller genre’s “vengeful nature” category, “Gaia” is a film of biblical proportions with sumptuous imagery and a premonitory tone. Directed by Jaco Bouwer (“Die Spreeus”), the film is set in the South African Bush with English and Afrikaans dialogue. Taking simultaneous inspiration from surrealism and the breadth of Christian scripture — from Genesis to Revelation — “Gaia” is a symbolist’s playground. Though not entirely original, (can anything so dependent on symbols truly be original?) the film as a whole is a novel experience with contemporary pandemic relevance.
“Gaia” is enthralling from the beginning. When forest service officer Gabi (Monique Rockman, “Die Spreeus”) wanders into the forest after her decommissioned surveillance drone, she senses that something unknown awaits. Before the drone’s camera cut out, she saw someone. This is all the information the viewer has, so like Gabi, we cannot tell friend from foe until well into the film. Early on, however, we understand that this forest is the domain of an intelligent, parasitic fungal ecosystem. Injured by a trap and unable to communicate with her colleague, Gabi is forced to fend for herself in this strange world.
Ultimately, with the help of the only two healthy humans left in this forest, Gabi heals and comes to learn that she wandered into an ecosystem ruled by a divine feminine earth force. Only Barend (Carel Nel, “Raised by Wolves”) is able to communicate with the forest. His son Stefan (Alex van Dyk, “The Harvesters”), and now Gabi, rely on Barend’s relationship with this force that he identifies as God. The three find themselves pitted against one another and an increasingly merciless Mother Earth who wages her battles with spores and hyphae.
Barend, once a plant pathologist, is quite the theologian and philosopher, writing a manifesto on humanity’s death march to apocalypse. Quotes from Revelation are interspersed in a thrilling monologue delivered with incisive fury about the fate of mankind. His talk of apocalypse prompts a reappraisal: Though the title of the film suggests that this divine flora is the mother of the Greek Titans, and her instruction to Barend frames her as the Abrahamic God, her foretold role in the downfall of society makes her analogous to Babylon.
Biblical tales are communicated through form, though much is said visually. The vulvar flora of Georgia O’Keefe, the visceral soaps of Brassaï, the imagined worlds of Salvador Dalí and Leonora Carrington steep “Gaia” in surrealism and magical realism. Even Marcel Duchamp appears as an influence. Bouwer raided the art historical canon for its most thoughtful symbolists.
The result has novelty –– powerful footage of mud and algae interacting with the human body — and cliché — the vaginal crevice of a tree serving as a point of communion with the divine feminine. No matter how original the components, Bouwer and director of photography Jorrie van der Walt (“Die Spreeus”) create an engaging visual adventure.
The film is clearly resplendent with metaphor but outdoes itself with its makeup. Rooted in a shred of scientific truth, the fungi in “Gaia” are parasitic. An example of this is Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, a fungus which preys on ants, ultimately taking control of their bodies and sprouting from the head in order to release its spores and propagate. Without totally spoiling the magnificent and stomach-churning visuals, “Gaia” imagines a similar fungus, targeting humans rather than ants. Makeup artist Sulani Saayman (“The Red Sea Diving Resort”) and production designer Rocco Pool (“Kanarie”) seize this opportunity to create incredible fungal sculptures. These designs are otherworldly in biodiversity and texture while remaining, literally, grounded, seemingly composed of earthly organisms.
Alienness predominates “Gaia,” but there is a pressing familiarity to the nature of this beast. Barend tries to teach Gabi and Stefan the lesson that Earth will prove superior to man’s designs, a prophecy that seems to come true at the film’s conclusion. But the viewer cannot help but think of the pandemic, frightening proof of the power of nature to overwhelm and overpower human hubris. Viral or fungal, never again should we dismiss the threat posed by nature.
Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.