Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Invite Him--He's a Fungi

Film: Gaia
Format: Streaming video from Hulu on Fire!

One of the things I like about horror movies is that they reflect the time in which they are created. Go back to the 1950s, and a lot of the horror is science fiction-based and has hints of both atomic mutants and the threat of Cold War Russia. There’s a reason that Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the original) can be reasonably interpreted as both anti-communist and anti-McCarthyism. 9/11 caused a rise in American nationalism and led directly to movies like Hostel, where the evil was “out there” in non-American places that put us in danger. With the increasing threat of climate disaster looming, films like Gaia are absolutely where horror is going to go in the years to come.

Gaia starts with a pair of workers for the South African forestry service working on a survey. They are traveling by river, and Gabi (Monique Rockman) is operating a drone while her partner Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) paddles the canoe. The plot essentially begins when the drone gets knocked out—Gabi gets a glimpse of what looks like a mud-covered person knocking it out of the sky. Not wanting to leave electronic garbage in a forested area, Winston drops her ashore so she can track the drone and meet up with him later.

What follows initially feels like it is going to be reminiscent of Deliverance more than anything else. Gabi steps on a booby trap that puts a spike through her foot. She removes the spike and hobbles off, eventually finding what looks like a cabin to hide in. Of course, the cabin is occupied. The inhabitants, a father and son duo named Barend (Carel Nel) and Stefan (Alex Van Dyk) are surviving in this forest, but have some dire warnings for what Gabi has walked into.

What she learns is that Barend was once a plant pathologist who brought his son to this place when his wife died of bone cancer. What is actually happening is that the forest has spawned some form of new rapidly-growing fungus that infects creatures and essentially takes them over. Barend claims that it appears to like the human form best, and we see a few glimpses of these fungal creatures—human-shaped, but covered in fungal growths. And, because these are fungal creatures, the infect others via spores. In Barend’s view, this is an outgrowth of a huge fungal colony underground that, with the Earth on the verge of ecological collapse, has essentially evolved a way to fight back.

We get a taste of what is to come for humanity when Gabi finds Winston, who has been attacked by one of the fungal creatures overnight. Now close to blind, Winston is covered in fungal growths and begging for death, something Barend helps him with, suggesting that if Winston is not killed, he will become one of the monsters that roam the forest. Meanwhile, Gabi gets closer to Stefan who is essentially unaware of the wider world. Gabi also has disturbing dreams that involve mushrooms and other fungi growing out of her skin.

There’s a natural desire to compare Gaia to a film like Matango, but that’s not the right comparison. There’s much more similarity here with something like Annihilation, where the environment appears to be slowly being taken over by something that might be impossible to combat. The other films that this feels a great deal like are Splinter, which features a mutating fungus that controls anything it infects, and The Girl with All the Gifts, which features a fungal infection that essentially turns people into fungus-based zombies.

One of the conventions that happens a great deal in Gaia is having Gabi see/feel fungal growths on her skin, particularly her arms and legs. We also frequently have her react to these feelings by waking up violently. This sort of violent “the person sits bolt upright in bed from a nightmare” trope is overused in general, and if it weren’t already overused, Gaia would get us there. It feels like it happens about every 10 minutes. It gets almost to the point of comedy with how frequently this happens.

I like the idea of Gaia. Environmental horror is absolutely going to start becoming a thing. It will happen in a variety of places—a movie like Crawl is no less a film about climate change just because it’s about alligators and a hurricane. A lot of climate horror will be more of the Gaia variety, though, where the environment itself starts fighting back against the depredations of humanity. Filmmakers with a smidgen of knowledge about fungi will go there for horror more than anywhere else; fungus is freaky, and the more you learn about it, the freakier it gets. Gaia gets at least a big part of that right.

Why to watch Gaia: Environmental horror is the future.
Why not to watch: Jolt awake from a nightmare trope becomes an environment in this film.


  1. I just got Hulu recently as I don't know if I'll see this as I have other horror films that I'm watching.

    1. It's not bad, but there are definitely better choices out there. It is cool if you want to listen to people speaking Afrikaans.