Just when you thought the whole zombie-apocalypse niche had literally been done to death across film and television, British film The Girl With All the Gifts is here to prove that while yes, it indeed has, there are still some unexplored nooks and crannies left within the genre to give us a chilling and thoughtful new perspective on the living dead.
Based on the novel by M.R. Carey, The Girl With All the Gifts tells the post-apocalyptic story of a 10-year-old girl named Melanie (newcomer Sennia Nanua), who is one of many children living in an underground bunker, forced to wear orange jumpsuits and crocs, and confined to individual jail cells like violent criminals. Opening with Melanie’s “day to day” in this prison-like compound, we witness a very tense and practiced routine as armed military soldiers barge into her cell and proceed to shackle her to a wheelchair, before escorting her to jail-school. Favored by her warm and caring teacher, Miss Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), Melanie appears to be nothing more than a bright, curious and polite little girl. We as viewers are of course meant to wonder: what is there to fear? But when a disturbance in the classroom, caused by Sgt. Eddy Parks (Paddy Considine) soon reveals, Melanie and her fellow classmates are in fact as dangerous as the soldiers are treating them to be. Born with a parasitic fungus that turns people into rabid, mindless “Hungries,” Melanie is capable of going into an animalistic feeding frenzy at the slightest smell of human flesh.
Naturally, this place of sanctuary is soon overrun and a journey embarks, as they so often do in these sorts of films, and Melanie is thrust into the hands of three strongly opposed adults, Miss Justineau, Sgt. Parks, and scientific researcher, Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close), in a quest to reclaim humanity.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am well aware this film at times feels like a smorgasbord of pretty much all the familiar zombie tropes from the last couple decades. For instance, the zombies are fast-moving and frenzied like the ones we’ve experienced in 28 Days Later or World War Z, the backdrop is overgrown jungles encasing once-cities, and the root of the outbreak is a fungal infection that grows on the brain, diminishing its victims to weird, flesh-eating, plant-like monsters—which is almost a direct take from the 2013 video game, The Last of Us.
Yet, despite having seen it all before, The Girl With All the Gifts still delivers as an entertaining and thought-provoking watch for both zombie fans and non-fans alike, with an A-Team of actors, limited special effects, and a well written plot-line. While it does not hold back on unsettling gore and high-stakes action sequences, the intriguing part of the film is the development of its characters, and the motives behind each of their individual quests.
Melanie’s adult companions each view her through a different lens, each with valid, well-developed motives. As a viewer you will struggle internally to agree with all of them and none of them at the same time. Sgt. Parks initially views Melanie as a deadly time-bomb and a dangerous threat that must be eradicated, but later uses her invisibility to the Hungries to his advantage, making her his errand girl in tactics to advance them safely across a devastated London. Dr. Caldwell treats her as valuable scientific data, her mission simply being to harvest Melanie’s brain as the main ingredient for a vaccine. Then there’s sweet Miss Justineau, who views Melanie as an innocent child, and fiercely defends the potential of the girl’s intelligence and loyalty as a sign of hope for her future.
While they each see Melanie as some kind of hope for humanity, Melanie’s character challenges the very definition of humanity, providing a reminder that everything on this earth is just fighting to survive.
Close, Arterton, and Considine are all brilliant in their roles, however it’s young newcomer Nanua who truly steals the spotlight. Her performance is never anything short of enchanting, whether she’s light-heartedly playing with the soldiers’ walkie-talkies or defending the group from a tribe of feral child Hungries. Not to mention she’s probably the only actress who while wearing a hannibal-lector-like mask with blood dripping down her face (RIP Cat) could make you want to hug her. When it comes down to it, the character of Melanie and this charming little actress that plays her is what sets this film a part from similar works.
Besides, the true terror of this zombie flick is that it’s based on real science. Watch this video if you want to have nightmares for a month about the possibility of the human race going down like a bunch of brain-washed, suicidal ants.