“Gaia” is an adventure. Literally. There are magic mushrooms involved. Take a hallucinatory drug. This is Gaia reviews and movie summary.
“Gaia” is an adventure. Literally. There are magic mushrooms involved. Pop a psychedelic pill, and the world would resemble “Gaia,” in which a fungus of gigantic proportions proliferates at night in South Africa’s Tsitsikamma forest, accumulating strength and threatening to take over the planet.
Add a couple of roving half-human, half-mushroom monsters to the mix, and you’ve got yourself a trip and a half. “Gaia,” directed by Jaco Bouwer, has a lot to say about humanity’s environmental damage, about the “tipping point” we’ve collectively reached in the Anthropocene, but it conveys it with creativity, wild flights of imagination, and even fun.
“Gaia” is not a homework assignment. Rather than a lecture, it is a thought-provoking and frightening experience.
The first scene is straight out of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: two persons in a canoe paddle down a river. The river is hemmed in on all sides by dense jungly greenery. It’s a lonely scene, often shown from God’s perspective (appropriate since these two people are operating a drone, buzzing above and around them).
Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) and Gabi (Monique Rockman) are both forestry workers, and when their drone goes missing in the forest, Gabi decides to jump out of the canoe and go find it. Winston cautions her about the perils ahead. Gabi is unwavering: the drone has become “garbage,” and they must not leave their rubbish behind.
When Gabi comes across a couple of survivalists: father Barend (Carel Nel) and son Stefan, what was supposed to be a quick errand quickly turns into a confusing incoherent nightmare (Alex van Dyk). The two emerge, dirt-covered and rail-thin, wielding hand-made tools and draped in rags, like cavemen from the past. Meanwhile, Winston ventures into the forest in search of his colleague. Big blunder.
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When night falls, the forest comes alive, crawling with mysteries, mushrooms curling upwards, and long twirling fronds taking on a life of their own. (The visuals are stunning.) Gabi is alarmed by the squeaking sounds, sudden shrieks, whooshes of movement in the trees, and, on occasion, an eerie glowing red light emanating through the thick cover.
Gabi, huddled in Barend and Stefan’s shack, gradually realizes that “something” is out there, something unstoppable. Barend and Stefan are completely aware of what it is, what it desires, and how it operates. Gabi’s learning curve is lengthy. Winston’s is quick.
Getting out of the forest will be difficult. Gabi is drawn into the tense and controlling dynamic between father and son. When Gabi shows him her cell phone while trying to connect with the wordless Stefan, Barend grabs it and throws it across the room, shouting like an old-time preacher:
“Abomination! Devilish!” Barend says a prayer to the “Mother of creation and destruction” as the three sit down to eat. Outside, the mushrooms are on the move, rustling around behind the characters, mostly in a blur (a much scarier choice than seeing them up close and personal).
Tertius Kapp, the screenwriter, gives us a good understanding of how these creatures work and how Barend and Stefan have managed to survive. It’s difficult! Gabi learns by observation.
The most obvious reference in “Gaia” is to Heart of Darkness. There are also echoes of “Deliverance” (all those bows and arrows and wilderness injuries, not to mention an encounter with an unstoppable “Other”) and “The Mosquito Coast,” where a madman father enslaves his naive son (and everyone around him), more cult-leader than a parent. “Gaia” is also a good old-fashioned monster movie, albeit with a few quirks.
However, the film goes far beyond a simple cross-genre experiment. The warnings about what humanity has done to the earth power “Gaia” are urgent and terrifying, but Kapp complicates matters by putting the “sermon” about environmental devastation into the mouth of a fanatic, yelling about all the “whores and false goddesses” who live in the modern world. He’s a wild-eyed Abraham, ready to offer a human sacrifice to the ravenous Fungi God.
The images in “Gaia” have an eerie tactile quality, dense with detail and texture: the thick hard cords of tree bark, the green pond-scum moving sluggishly, the mushroom spores floating ominously through the blackness, little orange mushrooms springing out of a branch, the spinning cosmos above the trees.
There are numerous dream sequences, or possibly hallucinations as a result of all the mushroom dust floating around, and they are both terrifying and beautiful: mushrooms pushing out of Gabi’s arm, her hands plunged into thick black mud; Barend fornicating wildly with a hole in the dirt; Gabi lying naked beside a crystal-clear pond, the water calm and still. These sequences are extremely unsettling.
“Gaia’s” “message” is simple, but it’s told in a way that complicates, if not obscures, the message. That isn’t always a bad thing. What is left is the image of all those mushrooms spreading around trees, pushing their way up, blindly seeking more and more space. It’s either us or them. Sylvia Plath wrote a poem from the perspective of a mushroom. Its final lines:
“We are meek,
We are edible,
Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:
We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.”