“Gaia” is a South African trapped-in-the-forest thriller that trips up expectations more than enough to keep us interested.
It’s an eco-horror tale where who and what we root for and against are flipped and flipped again as the story tales hold.
And it’s icky in ways that would make many a creature feature green with envy.
Monique Rockman and Anthony Oseyemi play forest rangers, canoeing into wilderness so wild it inspires Gabi to note “There was a time when the whole world looked like this.”
They’re checking wildlife cameras, and she’s running a drone, perhaps keeping an eye out for poachers. The mud-camouflaged face that’s the last image she sees before her drone is done in should tip her, or at least her boss Winston off.
But now. “I’ll get it,” and before you can say “She’s going to get it, all right,” they’re separated and the story has changed point of view. Two Kate Moss-cadaverous wild-men in loin clothes gather grubs, fiddle with mushroom spores and set snares.
That’s what nails Gabi. Next thing we know she’s in their hut, perhaps “rescued,” possibly “in their clutches.”
Winston? He’s even more at sea in the woods than she is, and gets himself clumsily, panicky lost in a flash.
What will become of our intrepid rangers? And do these Afrikaans-speaking primitives (Carel Nel, Alex van Dyk) mean them harm? That the elder of the two (Nel) wonders “Who sent you?” and the younger gripes that “You broke our trap” isn’t encouraging. Speaking in riddles doesn’t help, either.
“These days, men will seek death and will not find it,” (in Afrikaans with English subtitles).
Jaco Bouwer’s film is a thriller of tumbled flashlight-lit chases in the inky darkness, of fungal closeups and fleshy injuries, noises in the dark and glimpses of a threat that is nobody’s idea of “human.”
It’s more creepy than terrifying, more thought-provoking than we initially expect, although perhaps not as “deep” as the filmmakers’ intended.
The action doesn’t quite sell it on its own, and even the mystery of it all is given away by the title. But Brouwer & Co., in immersing us in a piece of Africa both familiar and alien (a non-tropical “jungle”), in fuzzying up the “threat” and indulging in that never-to-be-underestimated “ick” factor pull this off.
MPA Rating: R for some violence and bloody images, sexual content, nudity and language
Cast: Monique Rockman, Carel Nel, Alex van Dyk and Anthony Oseyemi
Credits: Jaco Bouwer, script by Tertius Kapp. A Neon release.
Running time: 1:36