Written by: Mike Carey (novel, screenplay)
Directed by: Colm McCarthy
Starring: Sennia Nanua, Gemma Arterton, and Glenn Close
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"It's not over. It's just not yours any more."
Most zombie media is concerned with de-evolution: deep down, it’s what draws so many people in, as they’re fascinated by living vicariously through the end-times, when decomposed human flesh walks the earth and societies crumble to a primitive state. The Girl with All the Gifts features these surface affectations, but it’s not explicitly preoccupied with being resigned towards the end being an altogether bleak thing. Instead, it posits something else altogether: what if a zombie outbreak were somehow a moment of evolution, even if that still entails the end of humanity as we know it? That might sound bleak on its face, but, I don't know, have you seen how it's been going for us lately?
Years after an a mysterious fungal disease has spread across the globe, a sizeable chunk of the population has turned into ravenous, flesh-eating hordes called “hungries.” Meanwhile, the remnants of humanity have fled the cities and settled onto military bases, where they attempt to eke out some semblance of an existence. An especially bright girl named Melanie (Sennia Nanua) lives on one of these bases, and, with the exception of all the apocalyptic unpleasantness, lives out a normal life. She attends school with classmates and adores a teacher (Gemma Arterton) that indulges her with stories from Greek Mythology. However, something about her clearly different: when she’s not in school, she’s locked in a cell and has to be restrained at all times, leading the audience to wonder just what could possibly be wrong with this innocent girl?
The answer rests in screenwriter (and original novelist) Mike Carey’s hook: Melanie belongs to the second generation of children who have grown up during this plague to become hybrids. Technically, she and her ilk still crave flesh, but they’re able to control them, and they’ve retained their consciousness. Basically, they’re normal kids until those cravings kick in and they start gnashing their teeth and clawing at you, which I suppose is true of all children. At any rate, one of the on-base scientists (Glenn Close) is convinced this generation’s DNA holds the key to constructing an antidote to the virus that’s ravaged humanity.
Therein lies the central moral quandary of The Girl with All the Gifts, a zombie movie that retains the thoughtfulness that’s allowed this genre to endure for so long: should one child—in this case Melanie—be sacrificed for the greater good of all humanity? Carey and director Colm McCarthy are careful to consider both sides through nuanced characterization. Like most zombie films, interpersonal conflicts drive the drama, and they’re even sketched across the same lines: Closes’s scientist obviously argues that Melanie should be (humanely) sacrificed, while her teacher cannot abide. To further heighten the familiarity, Paddy Considine fills out the obligatory hardass military component who believes all of the infected should simply be eradicated.
But here’s the thing: all of these are treated more as characters than the usual clichés. Everyone’s grounded in the sense that they all seem reasonable, and even Considine's gruff military man has tender moments with Melanie that you don’t usually expect from this sort of thing. Like some of the better post-apocalyptic YA fiction from the past few years, The Girl with All the Gifts is a mature, rather stark exploration of growing up, especially when you’re considered to be special in some way. One of the toughest lessons that Melanie—and indeed just about anyone—can learn is that this isn’t easy. Tough ordeals and even tougher decisions await, and this is when she isn’t dealing with the zombie outbreak that’s reduced most of the world to utter desolation.
On that front, The Girl with All the Gifts also delivers the requisite amount of zombie action. Its scope and scale is a bit larger than most—rather than being confined to one location, this ragtag group is forced to stay on the run once the infected overrun the military base in a rather bravura action sequence. Moments like that provide the action quotient, but the film eventually settles into more of a suspense mode once the group reaches London’s decaying husk, where a prominent spire of spores ominously looms in the distance, a pointed plot device capable of unleashing humanity’s final destruction (but that’s looking ahead a bit). It’s in this bleak hellscape that Melanie discovers a pack of feral hungries that terrorize the group, promptly allowing the film to take a turn toward creepy kid territory.
Maybe it’s fair to say that this is also the movie with all the gifts, as it resorts to the kitchen sink approach by packing in a little bit of everything: suspense, squirm-worthy gore, shootouts, and a weirdest bunch of kids this side of Eli Roth’s Bubblegum Gang going to town on its victims. Despite being fairly serious-minded, it reserves some time to let loose with violent outbursts to remind viewers of the stakes here—this is a survival movie in the most literal and metaphorical senses, and it’s especially tricky that our main group is actually at odds with each other. One side’s survival might mean the other’s eradication, and this underlying tension guides the film to a tricky, confrontational conclusion where Melanie must face the reality of the situation.
You never doubt that she’s poised to do so: Nanua’s performance is poised as hell, staying just on the right side of a cloying precociousness that would otherwise unravel the role. Her struggle—particularly once she learns the truth of her existence—is evident in every moment. There’s an admirable restraint to it all—this is not a loud, maudlin film trying to wring an obvious sentiment from its audience. This is especially true once the story takes a wicked, unexpected turn: I suppose you expect some degree of nihilism from this genre, but The Girl with all the Gifts carries a fairly unique strain of it, one that’s laced with some black humor and a sort of perverse form of utilitarianism. I’ll admit it threw me for a bit of a loop, and I’m still not sure I buy some of the more pivotal character decisions (which are apparently more fleshed out in the novel).
By the end, that glimmer of hope is practically snuffed out and replaced by the notion that mankind’s eradication might not necessarily equal de-evolution at all. Maybe it’s just the natural course of things, and we’re meant to yield to the next species. What’s more, The Girl with all the Gifts supposes it’s exactly what we deserve, and maybe it’s right. Moreover, the glib tone it strikes towards the end might also be right, and it’s a hellacious, bold ending to a movie that somehow flew way under the radar. I’m often left wondering how certain lackluster films make it to 2000 screens while other, superior efforts languish on VOD, and this is an especially puzzling case. Not only is it adapted from a fairly popular novel, it boasts some star power, solid production values (not to mention an aesthetic that dares to be something other than “washed-out, drab wasteland”), and the sort of scope that would play well on a big screen.
Perhaps it simply wasn’t seen as being rousing enough for mass consumption, which may be true—this isn’t exactly Train to Busan in terms of being a crowd-pleaser. But like that film, it also offers a reassurance that the zombie genre isn’t done yet. Obviously, it resorts to some familiar ingredients, including a dash of Romero’s mid-career pessimism, but it boasts just enough wrinkles and a clever mythology to feel fresh in what has been a crowded, listless genre.
The Girl with All the Gifts arrives on Blu-ray on April 25th courtesy of Lionsgate. A 20-minute behind-the-scenes EPK titled "Unwrap the Secret World of The Girl with All the Gifts" is featured as a supplement.
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