PLOT: After a fungal virus has rendered life on Earth a zombie-filled dystopia, an infected young girl is chaperoned by a scientist, a teacher and two soldiers through the wasteland in order to find a medical lab and synthesize a vaccine.
REVIEW: Prolific Scottish TV director Colm McCarthy, whose last major undertaking included helming the entire second season of hit UK mob drama Peaky Blinders, has clearly toiled enough time and effort over the last dozen or so years to translate his vast talents to the big screen. And via THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS – a very well made and performed, hyper-violent, profoundly thought-provoking lesson on taxonomic self-preservation - he’s done just that. Adapted by celebrated scribe Mike Carey from his own novel of the same name, you can tell great craft, care, thought and imagination have been put into the screenplay, which, despite how outlandish the story action becomes at times, somehow remains plausible. With a powerfully eye-widening ending, a memorably unsettling score and a breakout first turn from Sennia Nanua – THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS is indeed a most invaluable story for the present!
We pick up somewhere in rural England, at a remote army base that’s been sealed and quarantined. We slowly learn a fungal virus that transmits bodily has ravaged the planet, leaving those infected as rabid, zombified ghouls with a dependence on warm mammal blood to subsist. We meet the tough and aquiline Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close), the one in charge of synthesizing a vaccine that could save the future population on Earth. Far friendlier is Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), a teacher who gives daily lessons to an entire stockade of young “hungries.” That is, children who have been exposed to the fungal virus but have yet to fully transform into the grown up version of the full-fledged zombie. It turns out that this mysterious fungal virus affects children differently, allowing them to retain the key traits that make one human – consciousness, empathy, morality, etc. Among the students is a bright young girl named Melanie (Nanua), with whom Ms. Justineau shares a deep bond.
Soon the base is bombarded by an intensified zombie incursion. A dizzying whirlwind of brutal violence follows suit – long takes, nastily relentless carnage seen without cutaway – before our principals make for an escape and hit the road. The zombies zip and dart with rabidity and rapidity, 28 DAYS LATER style, and only slow down when in a semi-somnolent trancelike state during the daytime. This offers a nice change of pace, as it includes both types of zombies we’ve come to know in movies over the decades – fast and twitchy kind and the slow and lurching kind. Helping guide the girls along the perilous path through war-torn England is Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) and a fellow soldier. Thing is, it’s precisely the girl Melanie who is used tactically to advance through the zombie-filled landscapes. She can traverse the masses undetected, use a keen sense of smell to locate others, etc. In short, she helps the humans survive just as much if not more so then they do her. The tagline of the film proves quite true, as the very threat to humanity is also its only hope.
One of the things I admired most about THE GIRL WITH THE GIFTS is just how sparingly the information is divulged, piece by piece, until we get a clear picture of what’s really going on. There’s no over-exposition here, no deathly monologues to explain everything away. Instead, there’s a slow drip of mythologized back-story that keeps us teetering perfectly on edge and intrigued throughout. We’re given just enough detail to keep up and desire to learn more, which is a sign of truly compelling storytelling. And even more impressive is the horrifying position taken toward the end of the film. Without betraying too much, what Melanie observes through her time with the humans ends up manifesting in a profoundly more terrifying way than anything the zombie mutants could ever exact. The grand realization Melanie has in the end seems to highlight the selfish hypocrisy of humanity’s willingness to kill what is alien, so long as it benefits only their kind. Melanie learns self-preservation from the human beings, Helen in particular, and to her mind, acts morally on behalf of this revelation. So it isn’t the grisly nature of zombies that is terrifying here, not as much anyway, it’s the intrinsic nature of humanity that rings so deeply disturbing.
It’s hard to dispute that, aside from 10-15 minutes of drag and some repetitive headshot gunfire, THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS is a very well made and freshly spun thread on the zombie subgenre. It’s the kind that would play perfectly as a double or triple international zombie feature with flicks like WYRMWOOD and/or TRAIN TO BUSAN. Not only has there been obvious care taken in every aspect of the craft – the script, the direction, the performances – the message of the movie’s story sets it apart from the unwanted spate of zombie movies on the market today. And although this is largely a visceral zombie movie, the profound position it takes on the nature of humanity is what really strikes as a salient cautionary tale.