By Lynn Venhaus

A revenge horror-fantasy where the natural world has the upper hand, “Gaia” has much to say about mistreatment of the earth.

The title comes from Greek mythology — Gaia is the ancestral mother of all life.

On a surveillance mission in a primordial forest, an injured Gabi (Monique Rockman) is rescued by two survivalists who adhere to a post-apocalyptic lifestyle. She has lost contact with her partner Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) as she searches for a disabled drone.

The renegade father Barend (Carel Nel) and obedient son Stefan (Alex Van Dyk) have a mysterious relationship with nature and seem to follow their own religion. But this female forest ranger discovers there is a greater threat in the wilderness than the philosophical rants of an off-the-grid dad.

Set in South Africa, director Jaco Bouwer builds suspense with a sure hand. A foreboding sense of dread permeates every frame, and grotesque creatures who can viciously attack people, leading to strange outcomes, creates a frightful mood.

Because of her unfamiliarity with the terrain and lack of preparation, tough Gabi’s every move, every step outside the primitive cabin is met with trepidation. Even when the story is murky, the atmosphere sustains the terror, whether seen or unseen.

The technical crew work is superb. Yet, the film ultimately fumbles because of some half-baked notions and unclear motivation that should have been rectified to maintain the momentum.

The screenplay by Tertius Kapp makes points about science and divinity but veers in such weird trippy directions that we rarely have a firm grasp on the plot’s intentions. Do the fever dreams materialize into reality or stay in fantasy?

Stefan’s crush on Gabi, and her growing attachment to the teenage boy, is rather unsettling, and just what are the father-and-son’s intentions?

All three main characters do a good job in portraying their conflicted natures – with Monique Rockman’s doubt and suspicion as realistic as Carel Nel’s explosive temper revealed in his rambling manifestos. The former chemical engineer appears to hide too many secrets, especially about what happened to his wife. The son’s lack of experience in civilization is obvious.

While the always present danger in the form of icky screeching marauders who come out at night to hunt, using sound (sound familiar?), is disturbing, the characters’ inner turmoil adds another layer to the creepy vibe.

Because of the old-growth forest and illusion that not much has been disturbed, the crisp sound design by Tim Pringle is crucial, and the music score by Pierre-Henri Wicomb escalates the anxiety.

However, the visuals are the real stars here. The make-up and special effects departments create elaborate and bizarre ecological growth after people are infected — but the contagion threat is not explained.

Jorrie van der Walt and Film Initiative Africa won the ZEISS Cinematography Award at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival in mid-March, and his work is exceptional contrasting light and darkness in the Tsitsikamma Forest along South Africa’s coast.

The amount of detail is captivating. Rocco Pool’s production design creates believable scenarios in several worlds.

Yet, it’s the lack of satisfying answers to the growing number of questions we ponder that let us down in the end. Still, the unusual topic and its other-worldly setting engage in mysterious ways. It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.

Carel Nel as survivalist father

“Gaia” is a 2021 horror-thriller directed by Jaco Bouwer and starring Monique Rockman, Carel Nel, Alex Van Dyk and Anthony Oseyemi
Rated R for some violence and bloody images, sexual content, nudity and language, its run time is 1 hour, 36 minutes. Lynn’s Grade: B-. It premiered at the SXSW Festival in March. In theaters on June 18 and available Video on Demand June 25.