Mushrooms. I hate mushrooms. And the variety of movies made about them do little to change my opinion that they’re horrible, evil little things. Splinter and its stabby, homicidal fungus; Superdeep and its body-melting fungus; Unearth and its… whatever the hell that fungus was meant to be; Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth; and of course The Last of Us (admittedly not a movie) and its world-destroying zombie-monster-creating-fungus.
Now we’ve a new one to add to the list in the shape of Jaco Bouwer’s Gaia. Directed by Bouwer (Dwaalster, Die Spreeus) and written by Tertius Kapp (Die Spreeus, Rage) it tells the story of two South African forestry service workers – Gabi (Monique Rockman – Die Spreeus, Number 37) and Winston (Anthony Oseyemi – Room 9, The Salvation). When Gabi’s drone is lost in the woods, she sets out to recover it while Winston continues their survey.
This seemingly innocuous task leads to her becoming injured and separated from Winston, eventually ending up taking shelter in a cabin occupied by technology-denying survivalists Barend (Carel Nel – Blood Drive, Grant) and his son Stefan (Alex Van Dykj – The Harvesters, Klarinet) who she initially believes to be the usual, run-of-the-mill nutters until their house is attacked in the middle of the night by strange, not entirely human creatures. What is the strange presence that they worship? Why is she having nightmares about fungus? Why didn’t she just immediately leave as soon as she was able to? Why didn’t she just use her mobile phone to call for help or rescue? And sadly that’s where Gaia fails – in its storytelling.
But before we get into the bad, what was good about Gaia? It’s a very pretty film in a stark, mud-encrusted, primal kind of way, with a lovely authenticity to our technology-shy duo, their clothes and even their knives obviously handmade. There’s also a simply amazing soundtrack by Pierre-Henri Wicomb (Waterfront, Cut-Out Girls) which is well worth a listen in its own right (available on your streaming service of choice). The creature effects are very nicely done, however it’s difficult to overlook the fact that they bear more than a passing resemblance to the Clickers from the aforementioned The Last of Us, right down to being blind and using sound to navigate and hunt.
The biggest problem with Gaia, though, is that it just doesn’t really do enough with it’s mycelium-based premise. It’s hinted that humankind is staring extinction in the face, that the thing that’s been growing in the jungle is getting ready to unleash its spores and wipe us out (no seriously, The Last of Us would really like its plot back) but that’s set aside in favour of the weird semi-sexual relationship between Stefan and Gabi and the ranting and raving of Stefan and his hatred of everything mankind stands for, which makes Gabi’s decision to stay with them even more bizarre.
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Gaia is not a bad film by any stretch. It clocks in at 95 minutes and change and it’s certainly never boring, but all in all it feels like a missed opportunity. The body horror aspect of the spores is barely touched on, and makes Gabi’s decision to remain all the more baffling. Why wouldn’t she leave on realising she was infected? The origin or purpose of the strange, Clicker-like entities is barely examined either. Are they other forestry service employees? Random hikers? Why does nobody seem aware that people go missing in this place? Gabi and Winston certainly don’t seem concerned about being out there on their own.
Gaia could have been so much more, but the choice to focus on Barend’s philosophical musings is likely to leave those folks who came here hoping for a full-on horror movie disappointed by what they find lurking in Gaia‘s dark, inhospitable jungles.
Gaia will be available on Altitude.Film and other digital platforms from 27th September.