I’m not a religious person, but I believe finding faith in Mother Nature is a solid concept. After all, as the debut trailer for Jaco Bouwer’s Gaia states in a tense and timely monologue: “she was here long before apes began dreaming of gods.” But what if you knew God was real? What if you knew where she lived? Would you live your life differently? For Barend and his son, Stefan, the answer is a resounding “yes.” 

During a routine check of wildlife cameras in a remote location, forest rangers Gabi and Winston stumble upon a father and son duo living a reclusive and post-apocalyptic lifestyle deep within the wilderness—even though the world is still very much operating as usual. After an unfortunate mishap that lands Gabi in hot water, she quickly finds herself seeking refuge in the home of these strange survivalists. 

To my surprise, Gaia isn’t quite the heady and atmospheric experience that I expected it to be. In fact, it’s fairly straight forward with a pace that kicks things off almost immediately. There is a threat in the forest, and it is very real. Instead of spending time building mythos around the forest god that Barend and Stefan now worship (though that is also present), Gaia largely becomes a grisly tale of survival for forest ranger Gabi and the relationships that form between Barend, Stefan, and herself. And while there isn’t much to the character of Gabi, Barend and Stefan are quite interesting. Details of their former lives add an interesting wrinkle to the never-ending debate between faith and science. But regardless of how well-rounded the characters may or may not be, the performances are all quite good—and that’s important when your film only has four people in it. 

“Gaia largely becomes a grisly tale of survival for forest ranger Gabi and the relationships that form between Barend, Stefan, and herself.”

Gaia’s greatest strength, however, comes from its visuals. Cinematographer Jorrie van der Walt creatively captures the forest from unique angles and utilizes motion in inventive and captivating ways. The photography is only further enhanced by some truly remarkable digital effects that find themselves masterfully blended into real-world environments. Even the creature design (yes there are creatures) is top notch and should be studied very carefully by whatever team gets to work on the upcoming adaptation of The Last of Us. That’s not to say the designs are derivative—just that they are similar while each representing something completely different. This isn’t a post-apocalyptic film, but the writing is certainly on the wall. 

Beyond its spellbinding presentation, though, Gaia may not offer up as much to chew on as some audiences may expect given a story with this subject matter. Big reveals and revelations happen, sure, but the conclusion feels somewhat unsatisfactory–even if a post-credits scene helps to minimize that feeling some. Bouwer’s horror debut delivers in terms of tension and terror, but it stumbles while bringing it all together. That said, it looks remarkable and Carel Nel’s fiery performance as Barend is a must-see. If you’re simply looking for a masterfully shot creature feature full of fungus and frights, it’s hard to do better than Gaia.

Gaia made its world premiere at the 2021 SXSW Online film festival. A formal release date has not been set.