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SXSW Review: Mother Earth Strikes Back in “Gaia”

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 23rd, 2021

GAIA director Jaco Bouwer | Credit: Antonia Steyn

Gaia (Jaco Bouwer, 2021) 2½ out of 4 stars.

Long have humans reigned supreme on this planet, taking what we want and giving very little, if anything, back. Even as the world’s ecosystems further destabilize with each passing year, many of our species refuse to accept the truth about climate change, preferring to take comfort in longstanding behavior. The pressing issue of the future is further complicated by the understandable resentments of developing nations towards the ones who led the way in pillaging our natural resources, those global leaders who now turn around and lecture everyone else on responsibility. We are doomed, in other words. But if we can’t save ourselves in the real world, at least we can use the looming catastrophe for storytelling fodder, which is what South African director Jaco Bouwer does in his ecologically minded horror film, Gaia. The title is a direct allusion to the Greek goddess of the Earth, who here very much strikes back, reclaiming what is hers.

We start on a lush green forest, seen from above, the camera slowly turning upside down to display the Earth above and sky below. This is Gaia’s story, lest anyone forget. It turns out the images are captured by a drone, which soon reveals the people controlling it: two park rangers, Gabi (Monique Rockman) and Winston (Anthony Oseyemi), surveying their territory from a canoe. As the flying device makes its way into the woods, it sees nothing but vegetation until suddenly, standing in front of it, is a man. And then the camera cuts out. Since they can’t just leave the drone where it is, Gabi and Winston set out on foot to retrieve it. What they find is not at all what they expect.

Monique Rockman in GAIA ©Jaco Bouwer

For deep inside the forest are father and son Barend (Carel Nel) and Stefan (Alex van Dyk), apparent survivalists who long ago abandoned civilization. Unfortunately for Gabi, she walks into an animal trap of theirs, injuring her foot. Though initially threatening in appearance, the men prove helpful in tending her wound. It turns out there are far scarier monsters out in the wild than the two of them, the story quickly evolving into something fantastical. Barend knows more than he lets on. Seeing what happens to Winston, separated from Gabi, we grasp, without yet understanding how or why, that the Earth is alive, attacking would-be invaders.

Bouwer’s premise intrigues and his actors shine, but though the film features strong visuals and evocative effects, the narrative doesn’t always hold together, despite the expositional glue applied again and again. Less would be more, in terms of explanation, allowing the mystery of the creatures and their raison d’être to speak for themselves. The below-ground fungal network at the literal root of it all is clearly based on actual science (witness the 2019 documentary Fantastic Fungi), elevating the central idea beyond pure imagination. Still, though the ending features a fascinating twist, the final result feels muted, the abstract riddle of it all made overly concrete. Nevertheless, what lingers are the images of Mother Gaia, fighting for her life, taking no prisoners.

Still from GAIA ©Jaco Bouwer
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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