Overview: A group of soldiers and scientists transport a girl through a zombie-like wasteland in an effort to save humanity. Saban Films; 2017; R; 111 minutes.
Here We Go Again: It’s hard not to let the general malaise about zombies affect a viewing of The Girl With All The Gifts. It’s a subject that’s so tired, people are not just tired of it, they’re tired of talking about how tiring it is. But it wasn’t always this way. The zombie concept has been around since the 8th century (1932 on the silver screen). Most of the influence essentially comes from a bastardization of Haitian Voodoo, witch doctors with a mysterious powder that left victims in a coma only to be reanimated without faculty of the brain. It’s a frightening concept, but the use of zombies in film has historically been used to say a lot about current events and society. Humanity has always been interested in the return of the dead. In film alone, we’ve seen countless examples, from Night of the Living Dead to 28 Days Later, Zombieland, and back again, over and over.
Of course, zombies and dystopia go hand in hand, proven by what feels like 30 years of watching The Walking Dead. It makes sense. Were a disease or infection to spread at the rate of a zombie plague, it would be only a matter of time until there are only pockets and handfuls of “good decent people” left. In a narrative sense, what makes those people and their stories worth paying attention to is the observation of the loss of that goodness, the revelation of secret histories and failings. Over time these characters come to face their own weaknesses and either overcome or succumb to them. Through their challenges we reflect on our own and question our own instinct for survival.
The Girl With All the Gifts has been touching festival with a story we’d heard before while promising something different – perhaps heart. This film is based on a book (which is based on a short story) by M.R. Carey. Carey’s story is a dystopian tale about a small populace that has gathered after humanity has been wiped out by a fungal infection that causes people to become “hungries”, the latest code-word iteration of zombies. The book was probably awesome in 2014. The year before, Naughty Dog released The Last of Us, a wildly impressive award-winning video game about fungal-infected zombies. Having played and watched The Last of Us extensively, it was difficult not to draw comparisons between them the entire time. That’s a shame, it turns out, because the fungal origin of the hungries is the most interesting part of the film, but it had been done before – even better – in a different medium.
Nevertheless, the film’s central concept is still intriguing. In The Girl With All the Gifts, this fungus attacks and spreads through human body fluids or seeds once pods have been opened. The unique customization in this story is delivered in the idea of hybrids, children who have been affected by the virus but retain the ability to speak and think and to maybe have feelings (depending on who you ask). Hybrids are kept in an underground bunker while the rest of society fights an active war against the living dead. The children are taught and studied in an effort to find a cure for the disease which has ravaged humanity.
Melanie is The Girl (Sennia Nenua), and she’s special in all the usual ways. She’s extremely polite, talkative, obviously smarter than the rest and actively reaches beyond her own limits. Also, she’s the one key to humanity’s survival and must be protected when the bunker is compromised. While the resident scientists and soldiers suspect that the hybrids are not fully human, acting not with will but with “mimicry of observed behaviours.” Melanie is immediately evidence against that theory and her special favourite teacher Ms. Justineau (Gemma Arterton) sees that.
Thoughtful Premises: There is heart, then. Rather than barking orders and information at the children, Ms. Justineau is plied to share stories to ease their lonesome lives and inspire their imaginations. One moving moment shows Justineau gently placing her hand on Melanie’s head in response to a touching story she wrote – a willful and great offense against the rules established for her own safety. But in that moment, we are reminded of the importance of human contact and love and what the lack of those influences can do to people. So it is a bit of a love story, but not in a traditional sense. In this case, a young hopeful girl comes to love the one person who treats her like a human and fights for her rights.
What’s most fruitful about The Girl With All the Gifts is its examination of fear, primarily fear of the other and the unknown. The soldiers are terrified of the hybrids so they treat them like subhumans. They know they could be killed by them so they punish and lord over them to feel in control, telling themselves they’re not fully human in order to be comfortable with their mistreatment and disposable lives. Here, too, an interesting question is posed: What is humanity? What makes us human? Our origin stories are just one important part of how we define that, but Melanie doesn’t know hers. She has no idea what she is. All she knows is what her oppressors have told her: that she is both alive and dead. That’s what makes the journey important. Along the way, Melanie comes to know and confront the truth about herself and her destiny. The scientists and soldiers are transporting Melanie for their own purpose, to save humanity. Somehow though, those stakes and urgency are never really felt, so it’s gratifying to have something more personal to carry our interest throughout the film. This is what makes the film accessible to a wide audience, and a relatively safe watch.
Luckily the performances make this heartwarming story believable. Sennia Nanua is absolutely charming from the get-go as Melanie, conveying an innocent wisdom through her clean delivery and obvious confidence in front of the camera. Arteron, as the one who makes all the difference (“She looks at me like I’m Jesus,” she clarifies for us at one point) is just bold and tearful enough to pull it off while looking quite strikingly like a feminine Mads Mikkelsen.
Overall: Though you could predict most of the plot with your eyes closed, the ending of The Girl With All the Gifts ends up being a pleasant surprise, even if this horror fan wanted something a little more rabid and a little more raw the whole way through.
Featured Image: Saban Films