Nature, the Great Outdoors as they say, is depicted in two ways in horror films. Nature is either indifferent to the horrors that take place in it or it is the cause of the horrors, actively trying to kill humans. In the South African Gaia, man vs. nature thrills abound thanks to some original and haunting visuals. Opening with a drone shot from above the trees, it quickly descends into the depths of our fears that Mother Nature may fight back at some point.
That drone shot is soon ended with two mysterious men emerging from the woods and knocking it down. The drone belongs to Gabi ( Monique Rockman) and Winston (Anthony Oseyemi), two forest rangers who have set up cameras in the forest. Immediately you assume the threat will be these two mysterious forest dwellers but Gaia has a twist to it. They aren't the thing in the woods you should be afraid of.
Fans of the video game series The Last of Us may cry foul at Gaia's creature design. These "mushroom monsters" are a delight to behold but may seem a little too much like the creatures of that video game world. Similarly, it is a fungus that is truly that evil at the center of what is happening. Jaco Bouwer's wisely keeps these creatures hidden. We get what they are but we are never shown enough to betray the film's limited budget.
The two men that end up rescuing Gabi are father and son. The father (Carell Nel) is a zealot of sorts. He hates the modern world and has a monologue at one point on the toxicity of technology. His son (Alex Van Dyk) is a product of his father's belief but is also at an age where he is moving away from his father. This dynamic between them is felt instantly by Gabi. When the father shows he is willing to sacrifice his son to the massive organism of fungi living around them, the son switches loyalties.
Gaia's plot needs a few more moments or cool ideas to really succeed as a horror classic. The three main characters are all compelling. We understand their motivations and beliefs early on so we understand their actions as the tension ratchets. Bouwer is a confident visual director. He routinely adds a touch of psychedelia to reoccurring dream sequences. However, these never really add up to much. Where the film really shines is the creature design, make-up, and limited special effects. The film veers into body horror and it does so effectively and memorably. It depicts the act of being literally overtaken by nature vividly and a few shots will live in my memory for a long time.