Gabi (Monique Rockman) and Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) are park rangers who are part of the team who look after this South African jungle, and today have been collecting drone footage for their research as they travel down river. However, just as this appears to be going well, a problem arises when the drone in question suffers a breakdown, or at least a break in transmission, and Gabi is keen to investigate, much to Winston's disdain, though he caves in when she points out that leaving the drone to litter the jungle is probably unjustifiable in their jobs. However, she did notice the last image from the drone: a mud-covered man...
Staring straight into the lens! Ecohorror was making a comeback in the first half of the twenty-first century, and no wonder with the state of the environment headline news every other day, but just as in the nineteen-seventies where there had been a craze for revenge of nature movies, the trend began a revival and Gaia was as good a place to start as any. Directed by South African Jaco Bouwer, seeking to establish himself in film after a lot of television work, its main selling point was the look of the jungle it was set in, a tangle of branches, leaves and details that become more important as it progresses, for that is the fungus, almost another character.
Actually, there was no almost about it - where this effort's most obvious ancestor, the equally eerie Matango from Japan in the sixties, also known as Attack of the Mushroom People, had portrayed its fungus as a debilitating disease that sent its victims crazy, here there was a more spiritually profound change that those afflicted went through. Okay, perhaps they were more alike than Bouwer might have liked to admit, but that sense of the whole of nature banding together to make good use of the fungus all the better to wrangle the hold humanity had on the planet back into the tendrils and branches of Mother Nature was a lot more right on than anything in the predecessor.
So much so that when we get to know the two (white) mud men, Barend (Carel Nel) and his teenage son Stefan (Alex van Dyk), they come across less as two collaborators with the mysterious forces of the titular Gaia, and more like hipsters who have taken their rambling too far. After Gabi is injured in one of their traps, she breaks into their hut like Goldilocks and is found there in a state of delirium, whereupon they patch her up with folk medicine and refuse to allow her to leave. Winston, meanwhile, has evidently never seen a horror movie before since if he had he would be aware the black guy doesn't last too long when there's a menace about, and true to cliché he is downed by the frightful fungus, reappearing later on as a triumph of the low budget makeup master's art.
But there's more than the plants to worry about as they have taken over the bodies of visitors to the jungle and are intent on spreading the disease they are percolating inside them - the subtler effects have spores thick in the air, just ready to be breathed in by the unwary. Somehow the father and son (who don't look that far apart in age, to be honest) have avoided this, but the recuperating Gabi is seeing visions of blooms growing on her skin, and soon they seem to be predictions of where she will end up if she does not manage to get away. Though as Barend rants when he goes off on one, all of humankind will fall prey to this condition once it really gets a foothold in our wider communities. You could not fault the imagery, it truly committed to its themes in an imaginative way, and there was even a little nudity to underline the back to nature angle, but although the fate of the world was in the balance, the fact remained not an awful lot happened here. If you were soaking up the atmosphere, you'd love it. Music by Pierre-Henri Wicomb.
[Watch GAIA on Altitude.film and other digital platforms from 27 September 2021: Click here.]