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The zombie horror film is certainly not lacking, saturated to the point that even by starting this sentence with that word has probably already shaded your opinion of the film. That’s because we have built-in expectations of the genre, shaped by seemingly countless iterations of the flesh-eating undead from the classic defining monsters of the 1960s to the cliché-bending creatures of the modern cinema. Few offer any challenges and hardly any take risks with a tropes that by definition require a brainless walking (sometimes running) corpse to be the villains. Occasionally, a movie surprises and paints something different. With The Girl With All The Gifts, there’s no denying a nice twist in this thoughtful, action-packed thriller that has some very clever ideas, even if it can’t deliver entirely on the premise.
We meet Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a pre-teen girl in a deep underground facility, locked in a cell. She’s in an orange jumpsuit, counting numbers until a two-person team of heavily-armed soldiers pop the door open, automatic weapons drawn, and secure the girl into a wheelchair, making sure her legs, hands, and head are immobilized. They lead her into a room with other children like her, where a teacher named Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) offers lesson while guards watch.
We learn that the world has succumb to a deadly fungal virus, which has turned much of the population into fast-moving infected called “hungries,” all craving human flesh. At a joint military/science base, a group of children are held who exhibit both signs of infection but also higher cognitive function, outwardly appearing to be bright normal children, though when exposed too closely to the smell of flesh, become insatiable monsters. When the base is unexpectedly overrun by a massive swarm of hungries, Justineau, Melanie, and an ice-cold scientist named Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close), along with a few soldiers, manage to break away and try to make their way to London where it is believed Melanie might be the key to saving humanity.
Directed by Colm McCarthy, The Girl With All The Gifts, adapted from the book of the same name by M.R. Carey, has a lot that will be familiar to fans of the genre, especially the modern trend of running zombies, though that word once again is never used in the story. However, there are some major differences, with Melanie being the cornerstone in how the film takes a few left turns from the ordinary. She is an intelligent, curious, and sympathetic character that propels much of our interest in a story that, by the trappings of the genre, can’t help but fall into some well-worn ruts.
Indeed, Melanie is a surprisingly compelling girl, brung to life, for lack of a better term, by Nanau with great appeal. Melanie is a delightfully polite and inquisitive young girl who understands what she is but wants to learn more and not become what half of her already clearly is. Nanau is powerfully effective, carrying a sense of naivety about her while she comes to discover the horrors that she is a part of, yet wanting only to be human, or so it seems. She is a parable of sorts as the film attempts to place her in social commentary as a new generation tries to find its place in a world that resists them, and as well as these moments are presented, the film spends more time with the action than the questions.
That said, The Girl With All The Gifts has many great moments, and is very well cast. Close is strong as a determined scientist with preservation her only goal, seeing Melanie as a test subject at its start but much more as she proves herself imbibed with many advantages in navigating the dangers ahead. Arterton too is very good, representing the polar opposite of Close’s character, drawn near to Melanie as a person more than a thing. It makes for a dynamic relationship that is constantly re-shaped by their troubling journey to the film’s end.
By now, you can guess that end, or some of it, and for any player of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us video game, parts of sacrifice or survival will ring familiar, though The Girl With All The Gifts still has one last surprise in store that takes the film in a new direction, bringing full circle to the themes introduced earlier. Smart, often creative, and tense, there is a lot here that leaves this zombie story fresh and inventive, even if it stumbles a bit with some dialogue and a few action moments that don’t ring true.
Director: Colm McCarthy
Writers: Mike Carey
Stars: Sennia Nanua, Gemma Arterton, Glenn Close, Anamaria Marinca
Genre: Thriller, Horror