If cinema were just the art of ideas, there would be a lot to love about Gaia. This South African creature feature is anything but short on grand ideas, many of which might make for an interesting thrill ride through the secluded wilderness. Unfortunately for Gaia, ideas alone do not a movie make.
No, there must be a healthy mix of execution that elevates the ideas of a film to something more than mere ramblings. Here is where Gaia ultimately stumbles. Not fails, exactly, but stumbles haphazardly as it searches for whatever meaning it can find with the ideas it wants to explore.
This is largely an issue of writing. The script, from writer Tertius Kapp, never quite manages to recover from some act one slip ups that unfortunately set the tone for much of what follows. It presents us with a set up and inciting incident so contrived that the film never quite manages to hide the wheels working tirelessly in the background.
None of which is to say that Gaia is a bad film, per se. For some audiences, the grand ideas of the film will be more than enough to carry it through. And director Jaco Bouwer does display a knack for slow-burning tension which, mixed with some unique creature designs, does manage to hold everything together, if only by a thread.
The film follows South African park ranger Gabi (Monique Rickman) who, while on a mission to check on local wildlife cameras, falls into a hunting trap set up by survivalist Barend (Carel Nel) and his son, Stefan (Alex van Dyk). Purely an accident, the father and son help Gabi recover but, along the way, reveal a cult-like pseudo-religion based on their jungle habitat and the strange mushrooms that grow in the woods. Mushrooms that, Barend thinks, are probably God and have the capability of turning humans into bizarre mushroom zombies.
Kapp uses this plot as a way to wax intellectual on the ol’ humanity-as-a-virus theme. This is not exactly unfair, of course, given the rate of deforestation being seen the world over. Barend here serves as a kind of mad prophet for the dangers of overpopulation and environmental disaster. For his part, Nel manages to capture a deranged Ted Kaczysnki sorta vibe to counter Rickman’s logical, science-minded portrayal.
None of this ever manages to gel together into something entirely meaningful, however. Gaia, even with its incredibly well-designed mushroom zombies, proves itself overly reliant on cheap jump scares and yelling for its horror resulting in a slow burn that is never quite able to ignite into something bigger. Kapp and Bouwer try to bolster this with some surreal hallucinogenic sequences—this is a film about mushrooms, after all—but even that manages to feel like it’s trying too hard to be effective.
Die hard horror fans will probably enjoy Gaia for its unique approach to creatures, though the thrills and chills are too far between to really capture the hearts and minds of the fanatics. While there’s certainly the seed of something in Gaia that shows promise, it remains a promise unfulfilled. This of course leads to that greatest of horror sins: it’s boring. Not even the best of ideas can overcome that hurdle, no matter how hard it tries.
Gaia is now playing in select theaters and is available on demand.