Directed by Jaco Bouwer
Written by Tertius Kapp
I'm not really sure to what extent the recent South African horror import Gaia has, in fact, managed to make any mark; if you look, it seems to have at least been screened by a significant number of critics, and they have tended to give it a gentleman's C because anything that looks, sounds, or tastes like art horror gets a pass even if it's not good, which Gaia isn't, which in turn explains why despite its availability on VOD, and despite its acknowledgment by those whose paid job it is to acknowledge new movies, there seems to be virtually no actual chatter about it. As for my part, I'm only reviewing it because I'm worried that if I don't I'll have deserted my post, since I've obliged myself to at least occasionally review new release films, something I've been allowing myself to get lax at (or possibly just depressed with) because at this point I'm finding it difficult to care much about them—for a truly scary example, take The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, which a few weeks ago earned itself a place as my literal favorite movie of 2021, precisely because most everything about it was basically competent and nothing about it was actually interesting. When I say "scary," of course, I mean "it's scary that populist filmmaking has hit a losing streak so dire that the mere absence of being bad permits a negative inference of being good."
Gaia is significantly more mixed in every respect, and therefore achieves the dubious quality of being modestly interesting. It's probably harder to dislike Gaia than it deserves, because if it does nothing else (and the fact is, it kind of doesn't), it does have an ambition to show off a comparatively novel movie monster that we could have some fun with, and this is the main reason it caught my eye in the first place. It's not brand new, though I think it might think it is. I had to scour my memory banks for a direct antecedent, and it's entirely possible that neither director Jaco Bouwer nor screenwriter Tertius Kapp ever heard of the thing, but it at least seems indebted to 1963's Toho curio, Matango—not Ishiro Honda's finest hour, to be sure, but off-brand in an intriguing way, kaiju without the dai, if you know what I mean, and the kind of nonsense that easily could have been good were it not burdened with all the insufficiencies of mid-century Japanese Z-movie horror. Then again, there's also the first thing I thought of... which was Super Mario Bros.
Well, anyway, Gaia is the new horror movie about about people who turn into mushrooms. If you wanted to be snide, it's a movie about reskinned zombies along with some hillbillies, or possibly a reskinned Borg from Star Trek and some hillbillies; regardless, the starting place for Kapp appears to have been the factoid that the world's second-largest "single" organism was discovered to be a honey fungus colony in Orgeon (the title of the first-largest "single" organism going to an interconnected colony of cloned aspen trees in Utah—I propose that we should get very patriotic about all this), and Gaia's themes, in the sense that it states some vague ideas out loud by way of its antagonist, inevitably develop along ecological lines that weakly gesture back to early 70s sci-fi horror like No Blade of Grass or Phase IV. Armed with that title, you could probably write it yourself, but you didn't, so let's get into it.
The plot kicks off with a pair of rangers, Gabi (Monique Rockman) and Winston (Anthony Oseyemi), who've traveled deep into the South African hinterland to collect data about the primeval forest that is their charge; they're separated when Gabi goes to retrieve a damaged drone, and I regret to inform you that Winston will not be a particularly major factor in this movie going forward. Gabi gets herself crippled when she stumbles through a human-laid trap that puts a spike through her left foot, and here she meets the squatters who broke her drone and who laid the trap, Barend (Carel Nel) and his son Stefan (Alex van Dyk), who unenthusiastically render her back to their cabin in the even deeper woods for aid. Thanks to their effectively-magical knowledge of the flora and soil, the hole in their patient's foot closes quickly; she's even ambulatory again within a day or so. The downside is that during this time Gabi also meets the other denizens of the woods—blind, shambling humanoids studded with fruiting bodies that clamber across the forest at night, searching, I guess, for more animal flesh that they can decompose into food—and things get more disturbing when it turns out that whatever it is that's sending them, Barend worships it as the true god that's been here since before the first ape walked, and however he and his son have been made immune to the spores that constantly float about, Gabi definitely isn't, which is why every morning as she recovers she finds new fungal growths sprouting right out of her skin.
There's nothing about that set-up that's too on-paper terrible, though it pursues it with an impatience that would be indecent in any case, and feels altogether pointless in this one, with Gabi and Winston getting about twenty lines of dialogue apiece (this includes lines that consist solely of "Gabi?" or "Winston!") before the plot just smashes right down on their little boat, and pretty much removes character as a consideration for the whole rest of the movie. In Winston's case, the closest he gets to any texture at all is when he uses Gabi's precipitousness to take the opportunity to paraphrase the Eddie Murphy routine regarding white folks' curious penchant for running directly into obvious danger in horror moves. (There's probably something specifically South African at work here, with a mixed heroine and the way it turns its Afrikaaner characters into animistic, forest-dwelling savages; but so little is done with whatever idea it's gesturing at that it almost seems like an accident, and Barend and Stefan are just bog-standard back-to-the-land survivalists anyway, rather than, say, the remnants of a tribe of lost whites. After all ,very little in this movie labors to be anything besides cookie-cutter.) Well, it's not literally the next time we see Winston that he's dead, but certainly the movie is eager to get him there. That's very meta, and not especially likeable, but I may still know more about Winston than I do Gabi. The film's general impatience also means almost no time spent on building atmosphere or a sense of dread; we see glimpses of the monsters almost immediately, and the whole thing not long thereafter.
Which could be perfectly cool—it's hardly a sin for a horror film to lack predictability—except what it means in practice is a series of scenes that feel like they're in continual reset as the remaining more-than-an-hour demands to be filled, and very few of these resets make much sense; the only worthwhile one is the one that subverts the film's implication that Barend intends to make Gabi his horny teen son's bride, and the rest feel like Gabi starts fresh as a new character each day, who does not necessarily always seem to remember what happened the day before, and not in an ambiguous way but more like Kapp wanted tension, did not want a rape plot, and was kind of at a loss for how to achieve both aims, so he threw in the opposite of a rape plot even though it feels like it came out of nowhere. It tries a whole lot of different modes—Night of the Living Dead-style siege horror, religious cult horror (that edges up against full-on Bible allegory), Evil Dead-style gonzo gore action horror, psychedelic horror (duh), and body horror, not to mention what amounts to a caveman romance—but not a single one of them takes, and it feels like Gaia just has to keep grasping at ideas to keep itself going at all, and the only two things that work throughout are basically just a pair of brute facts, the first being that the South African forest has an unfamiliar complexion to an American, and the second being that Rockman either doesn't wear makeup for most of the movie because of course her character wouldn't (and I genuinely want to praise this) or else is wearing so very little it seems that way. (For that matter, neither is van Dyk, and it adds verisimilitude to a situation that needs it.) Still, those are some pretty thin reeds; at 96 minutes with credits, Gaia might be right-sized for a movie that is, again, about mushroom people, but still feels longer.
Ultimately, the main goal winds up to return Stefan to civilization (the secondary goal is getting him past Barend while Nel chews scenery quoting the Unabomber manifesto), and these three figures remain inordinately flat and uncompelling thanks to fairly vaguely-expressed motivations, and the fact that the supernatural (or, I suppose, science fictional) danger remains distant and unthreatening. The mushroom monsters are pretty lackadaisical: they look reasonably neat, or at least reasonably distinct, but for whatever reason the fungus among us eats its hosts' eyes first, leading to a smattering of theoretically-nerve-wracking Quiet Place-like "don't make a sound" sequences that, unfortunately, come off more like three experienced outdoorspeople knifing blind guys who've drunkenly wandered into the wrong hut. (It's also not remotely clear where these hosts are coming from.) Gaia probably didn't have the budget for more than what it does, as it was made for a reported sum of $126,000 (so, you know, congratulations on making any functional film whatsoever). Oddly, when it tries its hand at psychedelia, that budget is even more keenly felt, though money's not the real problem. It's that other than some decent matchcutting coordinated with a floaty camera, there's nothing like the Russel-esque visual imagination (though in this instance, maybe Malickian would be more appropriate) needed to pull the desired feeling of grandeur out of Gabi's magical mushroom tour.
The body horror is keyed even lower; it has one good gore shock, I'll give it that (poor Winston! and obviously the other big forebear is that episode of Hannibal about the guy who makes fungus sculptures out of corpses). But Rockman plays mushrooms growing out of her skin overnight more as an irritation than as something to get terrified about, and it seems to bother her so minimally that plucking hairs might hurt more than pulling the fruiting bodies out of her skin, whilst the mycelial network growing inside her flesh doesn't seem to cause any pain at all. On the other hand, I'm frankly not entirely convinced Kapp or Bouwer know how fungi work, or even what they are: the film is fond of computer generated growth spurts for the fruiting bodies that present as fully-developed within seconds (even on its chosen level of unease with the natural world's decomposers, there is absolutely none of the creepy-crawliness you'd get just from watching actual time-lapse video of gross fungus on a forest floor), and any given mushroom man seems to be comprised of a half-dozen species; that's acceptable license up to the point that, in the finale, I'm pretty sure one of those species is just a fucking fern. It is, anyhow, green. It has a nice, potentially-apocalyptic denouement still left to get to, but that sloppiness sums up Gaia pretty well, and it's a shame that such an unexplored facet of horror as that presented by a godlike, Lovecraftian fungus ends up so underwhelming. Gaia rips things off wholesale and without verve, and it barely has the energy to pursue its own, unique ideas, either.
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