The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

Director: Colm McCarthy
Writer: M.R. Carey
Cast: Glenn Close, Gemma Arterton, Sennia Nanua.

I’m not sure what it is, but I’ve realized recently just how many films or television shows about zombies I’ve been ingesting (pun a little bit intended). This is my fourth post this year alone that interacts with a zombie related piece of pop culture. The most interesting thing is that each has approached the subject in its own distinct and interesting way. Perhaps the most straightforward was the Korean film Train to Busan. In the British show Crazyhead the zombie element was a side story, not the primary demon focus. The Netflix comedy series Santa Clarita Diet, on the other hand, found a way to make the genre funny, while still connecting to the gross-out human flesh eating that is important when confronting the topic of zombies.

The Girl with All the Gifts is also doing something different and somewhat new. Combining the ecological ideas of The Happening with the take-over of humans of the Planet of the Apes movies, this zombie film attempts to engage with a different approach to what it means to be human and what our role on Earth really is. In a near future where a fungal disease has infected a large majority of the human race, a small contingent of military is intent on finding a cure. The hope for humanity rests in a number of children who were infected by the spores, but because it occurred in utero, their brains were affected differently and they are hybrid in nature, able to think and speak, but still hungry for flesh. The children are kept strapped in, but are taught in primary school by Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters). Heading up the research for the cure is Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction), who only sees the monsters in the kids, the hungries, and their apparent humanity only as a side effect of the infection.

After the military base is overtaken by a hoard of hungries, Helen, Dr. Caldwell, and a small number of soldiers must flee. They only have time to bring Melanie (Sennia Nanua, making her debut), one of the hybrid children, with them. Melanie is special, perhaps the most special of all the kids, and her intelligence, awareness, and apparent capability to feel empathy if not love, causes Helen to connect with her in a way everyone else interprets as extremely dangerous. But there are far bigger dangers and threats while on the move, and the group fights to stay alive, while also never forgetting the ultimate goal of procuring a cure to rid the world of hungries and thus ensuring the survival of the remaining humans on Earth.

To say more would spoil what turns out to be a very good movie with a lot of moving parts, which ultimately pay off in a satisfying way. I appreciated the commentary the film makes on our relationship to nature. It does so in a way that is not preachy, which in a horror film would feel out of place, but also does so intelligently and logically (unlike an aforementioned monstrosity by M. Night Shyamalan). The concept of evolution and progress of the species is also an interesting one, and the final scene will definitely linger in viewers minds for quite a while after the end credits are finished rolling.

I always love seeing Glenn Close on screen, and especially in this film she is doing something a little different and stretching her abilities. With a closely cropped haircut, Close provides her Dr. Caldwell with a harshness that befits someone living in a permanent state of war and fear. Her eyes betray her confidence, and the ultimate vulnerability shows why she is still working in her seventies, doing an incredible job, lending credibility to a horror film that is much better than the genre usually showcases. Gemma Arterton is a bit more forgettable. It honestly could have been any other young British actress, and it wouldn’t have mattered. I would have liked to see someone a little more alive behind the eyes, someone more expressive, in the part – it could have elevated what ended up amounting to a damsel in distress role. It had so much more potential. Sennia Nanua is, on the other hand, a true star. It’s amazing that a girl this young, who has never acted before, could be capable of such a performance. I was blown away by her, all that this role demanded of her, and she never faltered. The entire movie rests on her shoulders, and she proves to be a formidable lead. I cannot wait to see what she does next, and I hope that filmmakers know what to do with her, because she has the potential for stardom.

I enjoyed the movie very much. The cinematography is bleak and lifeless, but I think that may have been the whole point. The direction is capable, but very straightforward. Nothing really jumps out as inspirational, aside from the performances on screen. For what, ultimately, could have been just another horror film about zombies, the movie surprises with a lot of depth and a well constructed mythology. It ends up being well above average in all the right ways. A success of the genre, and a standout for sure.

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