The Girl with All the Gifts *** / *****
Directed by: Colm McCarthy.
Written by: Mike Carey based on his novel.
Starring: Sennia Nanua (Melanie), Gemma Arterton (Helen Justineau), Glenn Close (Dr. Caroline Caldwell), Paddy Considine (Sgt. Eddie Parks), Anamaria Marinca (Dr. Selkirk), Dominique Tipper (Devani), Fisayo Akinade (Kieran Gallagher).
There are not many people who would argue with me when I say that zombies are overexposed right now. The biggest show on TV – The Walking Dead – has been doing the zombie thing to death for 7 years now, and frankly, I tired of it (the second half of this season has started on a promising note – but the first half almost made me stop watching completely – the worst half season in the shows history). And really, there hasn’t been all that much original done with zombies since George A. Romero created the modern version of zombie films in Night of the Living Dead in 1968 – everything since then, from Romero’s own films to The Walking Dead to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (and 28 Weeks Later) and many (many) other copycats have been variations on a theme – sometimes great variations, sometimes not, but nothing too unique. What makes The Girl with All the Gifts worth seeing is that the film is at least trying to do something different with the genre (even if that doesn’t really become clear until near the end of the film). I do wish the execution of the film was a little better – directed by Colm McCarthy, the film has a rather pedestrian executions that borders on dull at times. When the film works, it work well – I just wish it had pushed itself a little farther.
The film opens in some sort of research facility/child prison – where every day, a group of children are strapped into wheelchairs and brought to class. It takes a little bit of time to determine why they’re there – these are second generation “hungrys” (they don’t say zombies) – who want to eat humans, and if they smell them, they cannot resist. But in every other way, they seem like normal children. While their teacher, Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) wants to teach them, and treat them as normal kids, the head guard, Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) sees them as little more than monster, and the lead doctor, Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) does research on them to try and create a vaccine. The title character is Melanie (Sennia Nanua) – who is smarter, and perhaps more advanced than the rest of the students. Eventually these characters – and some other who are basically along to become zombie food – have to head out on the road when their secure location is overrun, and find another safe place, if one still exists.
You can see the various influences at play in The Girl with All the Gifts – this is a film that knows its zombie movie history. There are parts of Romero and Boyle’s films here – mainly in terms of its themes. But the film also does something unique with Melanie – who really is a zombie with empathy. The film could have easily used puberty as a metaphor for becoming a zombie – but smartly, it doesn’t do that. Melanie is a little young for that, and while she clearly loved Miss Justineau, it is more a hero worship thing, than anything even remotely sexual. The film offers a unique view of the world – one in which Melanie and her fellow second generation zombies represents a kind of evolution – the first generation has already mainly succeeded in ending life human life as we know it – but what can these new “hungrys” come up with?
Those question are fascinating – but I really wish they were posed by a movie that is just slightly better than The Girl with All the Gifts. While I do think that McCarthy does a good job at establishing the world they know live in, and there are a few good action moments – an extended shot during the downfall of the facility is the best in the movie – too often, those scenes lack excitement. The movie is also never really all that scary – perhaps it’s the (rather unique) decision to mainly shoot everything in the daytime. As well, while the performances by Arteton, Considine and especially Close help to mask how one dimensional their characters are – each serving a VERY specific role in the film, they cannot completely overcome it either. Newcomer Sennia Nanua is a natural however – and does a great job with Melanie – the only person in the film allowed any real growth.
The Girl with All the Gifts is an interesting film that does some genuinely new stuff with a tired genre. That is enough to make it worth seeing. Yet, I cannot help but think that with a little tweaking in the screenplay, and a better director, this could have been one of the all-time great zombie films. It isn’t, but it’ll do until that film gets here.