Unearth follows a small town of farmers that begin to experience terrifying symptoms after a nearby fracking job unleashes a dormant organism. Gaia follows a researcher who is attacked by fungal-like creatures and must take refuge with two isolated men who appear to worship the creatures and their origin.
Gaia vs. Unearth
This is a first, but having seen these two films in quick succession and the two films sharing so much in common, it felt like providence to write a review that tackles them both in a semi-battle format. It's not uncommon to find films with similar plots come out within a year or two of each other. Whether you believe this is conspiratorial plagiarism or the mere fact that there is nothing new under the sun and it's bound to happen, it is hard to not want to compare the films when this happens. As such, we will dive into the good and bad of each of these films and find out which one I'd sooner recommend watching.
It's worth noting that both films' primary struggle is essentially the same; pacing. But they both struggle for different reasons. Unearth has a very gradual build that feels more like a small town drama through its first hour than a body/eco-horror film, while Gaia introduces its horror elements early and often only to gradually lose momentum rather than gain it.
Unearth is a hard grind through its first hour, feeling more like a drawn-out AMC Original TV series in which it spends a majority of its runtime building the characters and driving home the evils of fracking. I won't speak on either side of the issue (I lack the proper knowledge and that's also not what we do here), but I will say that the film has some of the most heavy-handed messaging I have ever seen. There are far more horrors present in the politics of fracking than there is in the body horror that is slowly building. The message may have been more effective in a Hell or High Water-type film, but it felt distracting to the awesome atmosphere that was being built surrounding its fungal antagonist that was silently spreading.
It all inevitably leads to an insane climax that offers quite a bit in terms of body horror and psychological thrills. The townsfolk we've begun to know start to deteriorate mentally and physically in a "killer mushrooms meets The Crazies"-type of way. And while I found this final act to be worth it in the grand scheme of the runtime (after all, the first hour helped me build a rapport with some of the characters), I couldn't help but think, "where was this an hour ago?" I simply didn't need all this background to latch onto the story and characters, and I definitely could have used more mayhem, but the payoff in Unearth is certainly powerful and lingering.
Gaia requires similar patience, but sadly in its second half. Rather than building the tension and reveal of its fungal antagonist, it chose to reveal its creatures early in visceral splendor, only to have them disappear for large parts of the middle of the film. It starts out with an intriguing world, but slowly descends into ethereal and psychedelic horror with religious undertones that feels more like a tame version of Antichrist than anything original. I found myself yawning through the second act, which was all-the-more disappointing following a very promising first act. The third act picks up steam, but because of its choice to chase a dream-like, apocalyptic finale, it left me a little underwhelmed.
Gaia still boasted some fun creature design and great effects for the budget. The blend of CG and practical effects was well-executed, and the acting helped carry the plot even at its most bland. However, one of my biggest pet peeves in horror is the dream sequence (outside of Nightmare on Elm Street, of course), and sadly Gaia drops a TON of these throughout the runtime. It got to the point that I just assumed every other scene was going to be a dream sequence, like waiting on the commercials between football drives. It got old and pointless and seemed like a cheap way to introduce some tension and instill a sense of time progression. It was an unfortunate add to an already dull second act.
I am a fan of eco-horror, so it is hard for me to be completely disappointed by them. As such, both films had fairly long leashes that were never truly tested. I enjoyed both of them and felt they both had plenty to offer. They also both had apparent issues, particularly in their pacing and some of their creative liberties in the scripts. It's pretty hard for me to pick one over the other, so instead I will try to recommend on preference. If you are looking for something wholly different with some fun creature design, go with Gaia. If you are looking for something slow-burn with a thicker atmosphere of haunting realism and a decent payoff of body horror, go with Unearth. If you like all of the above, maybe check them both out.
Horror Qualifier: 7/10
Horror Quality: 5/10
Film Quality: 7/10
Horror Qualifier: 7/10
Horror Quality: 6/10
Film Quality: 6/10