Gaia is about as pure an example of ecological horror as you'll find. That term, used to define horror stories that address environmental themes, can be broadly applied, but the fundamental core of it is on full display here. The film imagines nature coming alive in a decidedly unnatural way. Because it was shot in actual locations that certainly appear to be fairly removed from society, the eeriness of the tale envelops you. I was surprised by how unsettled I felt.

Gabi (Monique Rockman) is a forest ranger out on a routine mission in one of the most isolated parts of South Africa's Tsitsikamma Forest. The drone she's using to monitor the area crashes, causing her to separate from partner Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) to go find it. In the process of doing that, she steps into a hunter's trap and is injured. Gabi is then rescued by two survivalists, Barend (Carel Nel) and his son Stefan (Alex van Dyk), living way off the grid. They take her back to their cabin. Barend does the vast majority of the talking for both of them, although neither is what you'd call particularly conversant.

The situation becomes concerning for Gabi when she realizes these men possess a religious cult-like obsession with the forest. Even worse, there is some sort of mushroom creature lurking out there, along with bizarre mushrooms growing on trees (and sometimes people). I don't think I want to say any more about what happens next. You might not believe me if I told you anyway.

Gaia isn't a straightforward film, even if it sounds that way from my description. Incorporating themes of conservation, imbalance in nature, and cult zealotry, it's more about tone and ambiance than traditional narrative. Director Jaco Bouwer creates a mood that becomes increasingly spooky as the movie progresses. Gabi doesn't entirely know what's in the forest. Neither do we, and that air of mystery is what's captivating. We see the effects of the creature, and there's a nightmarish scene in which it storms the cabin, but Tertius Kapp's screenplay doesn't specifically spell everything out.

That may prove frustrating for viewers who want an excess of clarity – and for the record, I also believe Gaia is a little too vague at times. That said, anyone who can appreciate being plunged into a dream-like atmosphere will find themselves hypnotized. The mushrooms emit spores that, when inhaled, bring on hallucinatory visions. The film is structured that same way, so that the viewer feels as though they're under a spell. Dazzling, dark cinematography from Jorrie van der Walt and first-rate creature effects aid in accomplishing that effect.

In Greek mythology, Gaia was the personification of the Earth, and the Gaia Hypothesis “proposes that all organisms and their inorganic surroundings on Earth are closely integrated to form a single and self-regulating complex system, maintaining the conditions for life on the planet.” Knowing that helps Gaia's ideas come into focus a bit. Whether you make total sense of it, partial sense, or no sense at all, the ominous vibe is never less than captivating. This is an ambitious work that, for whatever minor flaws it has, is worth seeing and considering.

out of four

Gaia is rated R for some violence and bloody images, sexual content, nudity and language. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.