Gaia is a South African film that follows two forest rangers that become lost in the woods and discover two people who live in out in nature. But they soon discover that the two strangers are closer to the natural world than previously thought. I had heard of this film a couple of months ago and was interested in it the moment I read the synopsis. And, thankfully, my expectations were not only met but exceeded: Gaia is an incredible piece of work and my favourite film of Frightfest 2021.

The acting is phenomenal. Monique Rockman is fantastic as the forest ranger Gabi, who is rescued after being injured on a mission in the woods. Her appearance starts off as minimal, lending screentime more to her partner Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) in the first act. However, as the plot progresses and the horrors of the woods are revealed, the film gives the spotlight more to Gabi who is completely comfortable with the role of the leading lady. Her story arc and interactions with woodland people Stefan (Alex van Dyk) and Barend (Carel Nel) feel natural and authentic, but tense at times.

Alex Van Dyk and Carel Nel are also captivating as Stefan and Barend. Their father/son relationship is convincing, with the standout being Van Dyk, who portrays the quiet son who has never ventured out into the modern world before. Barend, on the other hand, is an intelligent person who has now succumbed to the strange forest and sees Gabi as a threat to their current lifestyle. They’re not villains, even if some of their actions seem malicious; they just have a certain way of life that Gabi technically interrupts. Furthermore, Gaia explores the concept of the natural world vs modern living and expands upon it in a, sometimes, literal sense and it’s both beautiful and terrifying.

A still from the South African horror film Gaia

And the terror doesn’t just come from the tension between the characters, but mostly from the surrounding forest that is more alive than it first appears. Something that will probably be echoed a lot is that Gaia feels like an unofficial prequel to Naughty Dog’s 2013 video game The Last of Us and that comes from the film’s sound design and creature design. The appearance of the infected are brief, as it’s more focused on the human characters, but they’re still scary and bring in a lot of the film’s tense scenes. Furthermore, the clicking sounds that they create are terrifying. The film’s practical effects revolving around the infected are fantastic and look real, and the idea behind them would fit in comfortably with A Quiet Place. The design itself is also horrifying but strangely beautiful too. Gaia does a phenomenal job at showing its audience how scary and beautiful the forest can be all at the same time.

The soundtrack also helps elevate the horror of the woods. A lot of the film’s sounds are made up of wind blowing, creating a screech-like sound, as well as twigs snapping and plants growing. While that may not sound scary in writing, it’s eerie and creepy onscreen. It ultimately creates a tense atmosphere throughout the runtime that never calms. Even when there are scenes that are supposed to act as a breathing space, the film makes sure the audience are aware that the forest can still be a threat. I personally am thankful that I went camping in the woods before seeing this film rather than afterwards; I probably would’ve refused to go if it were the other way round!

A still from the film the South African horror film Gaia

Gaia is a creepy but beautiful masterpiece, with phenomenal acting and each of the cast being given a chance to shine onscreen. The character development also takes us on a journey; while each character has different intentions and personalities, they’re all captivating and sympathetic. But the true horror comes from the forest and the creatures that it manifests. Through the sound design and fantastic practical effects, Gaia creates a landscape that is authentic yet alien; it’s strange but visually stunning at the same time. The film does carry the concept of ‘the natural world vs modern living’ from the very start, but executes it in a unique way that makes it stand out from other films that have previously addressed this concept. With Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth and David Lowery’s The Green Knight, 2021 is looking like a strong year for forest-set horror. Gaia is not only my favourite film of Frightfest 2021 but is a masterpiece that I am glad to have experienced.

Rating: ★★★★