Producers: Jaco Bouwer, Jorrie van der Walt and Tertius Kapp    Director: Jaco Bouwer   Screenplay: Tertius Kapp   Cast: Monique Rockman, Carel Nel, Alex van Dyk and Anthony Oseyemi   Distributor: Decal

Grade: C+

The old adage about not fooling with Mother Nature gets another workout in Jaco Bouwer’s South African eco-horror thriller.  If only the screenplay by Tertius Kapp matched the visuals, “Gaia”—the ancient Greek name for the Earth—would be a knockout; as it is, the movie’s only what’s usually referred to as a promising debut.

It opens with a striking upside-down shot, courtesy of cinematographer Jorrie van der Walt, of a canoe being paddled down a river in the lush Tsitsikamma national park.  The occupants are forest rangers Gabi (Monique Rockman) and Winston (Anthony Oseyemi), who are using a drone to survey the land.  When the drone suddenly goes down after providing a glimpse of a mud-caked man, Gabi jumps ashore to retrieve it.

That turns out to be an unwise decision.  She’s caught in an animal trap and rescued by a rag-clothed father-and-son pair, Barend (Carel Nel) and Stefan (Alex van Wyk).  We learn that after the death of Barend’s wife years earlier they had built a primitive cabin in the forest; there they live Spartan lives, eschewing all modern technology in conformity with the older man’s peculiar religious beliefs, with which he’s indoctrinated the boy.  It’s Barend who destroyed the drone, of course, and while he’s hardly welcoming to Gabi, he and Stefan do nurse her back to health.

Other danger lurks in the forest, however.  That’s made abundantly clear in what happens to Winston, who comes ashore looking for Gabi, only to be overcome by shoots and tree branches that envelop him and strange fungal growths that cover his body.  He’s being transformed by some vengeful power of nature, and what appears to be the eventual result of the process is disclosed in the snarling fungus-creatures that occasionally attack the cabin.  While all this is happening, Gabi experiences the beginning of a metamorphosis as well, as the buds of plants start breaking through her skin: body horror is a major element at work here.

What’s occurring, it ultimately emerges, is a counterattack by the earth against the forces of a technological civilization that has disrupted the natural order.  The focus is a huge gnarled tree from which the fungal entities emerge, and which Barend worships to such an extent that he’s ready to emulate Abraham’s proof of obedience—his attitude apparently sharpened by his consumption of mushrooms with mystical properties.    

There are ideas swirling about here, but they’re shrouded in ambiguity and hallucination; one of the script’s most notable weaknesses is its reliance on that old standby, psychedelic dream sequence, which in some instances it even doubles.  As “Gaia” moves forward, it grows increasingly obscure, leading to a coda back in the city that invites an exasperated “Huh?” (At least last year’s “The Wretched,” which also featured a monstrous tree, made sense in its more conventional horror-movie way.)   The suggestion of a possible romance between Gabi and the long-repressed Stefan is also more creepy than credible. 

If the dramatization of the film’s ecological message is flawed, though, it must be said that the three lead performances are fully committed to doing what they can to realize Bouwer’s vision.  (The viewer has to be willing, we should note, to read subtitles, as Barend often switches from English to Afrikaans in his harangues about the evils of the Anthropcene Age.)  And the combination of CGI and practical effects is definitely impressive; kudos are due makeup artist Sulani Saayman and visual effects supervisor Wim van der Merwe, whose collaborative efforts are mirrored in the equally canny combined work of composer Pierre-Henri Wicomb and the sound design team.

Ultimately “Gaia” is at once too literal and too phantasmagorical to make a coherent whole, but for fans of eco-horror it does offer plenty of weird moments, although the makers haven’t contrived a satisfying conclusion.