Director – Colm McCarthy
Cast – Sennia Nanua, Gemma Arterton, Glenn Close, Paddy Considine, Anthony Welsh, Fisayo Akinade, Anamaria Marinca, Dominique Tipper
Release Year – 2017
Reviewed by John of the Dead
The Girl with All the Gifts intrigued me because it is a zombie film with six-time Academy Award nominee Glenn Close in a prominent role. I was curious to see why she would partake in a film whose sub-genre isn’t known for Oscar worthy performances. The answer is simple: this is far from a brainless zombie flick. This flick, adapted from a novel by the same name, is one of the more intriguing zombie films I have seen. It not only adds a fresh take on the convoluted sub-genre but does so with great execution, plenty of kills, and a decent amount of gore. A film like this contains the elements to satisfy both new and old zombie fans.
Our story is set in post-apocalyptic United Kingdom, where a fungal disease has left humanity on its last leg. Those afflicted are turned into flesh eating zombies referred to as “hungries”. The only hope for mankind lies within a military base housing second generation infected children who hold the key for a vaccine. These children are able to sustain human thought and only lose control when they get too close to human scent. They are subjected to experiments by lead scientist Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close), and are educated by psychologist Helen Justineau. Of the roughly two dozen children, one of them stands out as spectacular – Melanie. Gifted with a high IQ and a high level of self-control, she is carrying the key to Dr. Caldwell’s vaccine within her brain and spine. Dr. Caldwell is willing to do whatever it takes to save mankind, and Helen is willing to stand in her way to preserve their humanity. These clashing moral issues are forced to take a backseat when their base is overrun, leaving the scientists, Melanie, and a few soldiers on a countryside trek for survival.
If it hasn’t hit you yet, this story is eerily similar to the highly successful (and so addicting) 2013 Playstation game The Last of Us. Both follow a young girl who contains the vaccine to save mankind from a fungal infection that turns them into flesh eaters that lack free will. The girl is accompanied by a father figure (although less so in this story) and the moral complex results in tough decisions that are on both sides of right and wrong.
I always enjoy the idea of an author adapting his own novel to a screenplay, as I believe it is our best shot at seeing their story come to life on the big screen. Writer/author M.R. Carey (Lucifer, Hellblazer, X-Men comics) kicks things into gear rather quickly, with the first scene of horror hitting just before the 15-minute mark. This is a fascinating scene that ruptures the little tranquility remaining in this post-apocalyptic world. At 22 minutes in the zombies overrun the base, and that is when the goods are delivered. From then on out we are taken along for a ride as our characters must battle their way across the countryside in hopes of finding safety not only for themselves, but most importantly for Melanie. Because she is the key to human survival, there is a level of urgency for Dr. Caldwell to manufacture the vaccine. She is unable to do so in the back of a military truck, and her cohort Helen Justineau also proves to be a roadblock. I enjoyed this dynamic as it will likely force audiences to pick sides in a struggle where there is little right and wrong. One could argue that Dr. Caldwell’s agenda is worth the death of Melanie if it saves all of mankind. On the contrary, you could say that doing such a thing violates the Hippocratic oath of doing no harm.
Coming in at 105 minutes of runtime before the credits hit, there is enough story to develop our characters and allow the viewer to put themselves in their shoes. I was surprised at how many enjoyable characters there were, as even the initially unlikable characters eventually became heroes. Melanie is a strong lead and she is in good company as each of the core characters plays a strong role in the film. There are no wasted characters here.
Now onto the horror, which as I have said earlier, breathes new life into the zombie sub-genre. I loved the idea of the virus being a fungus that uses the human body as a vessel until it is ready to unleash the ultimate doomsday surprise for mankind. In biology we call this symbiosis, and the fungus functions as a parasite would. This fungal infection, referred to as Ophiocordyceps unilaterlis, results in an unusual look for the zombies. They are covered in fungi and begin to even sprout through their orifices until they themselves become part of Mother Nature’s payload. These zombies run and they “turn” rather quickly, but they do kill so that they can eat humans. They don’t simply kill just to kill like “infected” do. Melanie is part of a second generation of zombie where they are able to function amongst society (what’s left of it) so long as they aren’t triggered by the smell of humans. To combat this, the living must put on scent blocking creams. This horror boils down to a tremendous climax I did not see coming. It won’t be happy endings for all, and I really enjoyed that. The final scene was a bit too silly for my taste, but that is just my personal preference.
Director Colm McCarthy does a solid job of bringing this adapted story to life. His atmosphere is great and he employs sets that allow you to envelop yourself into the film. Because this is a “moving” story you will see the characters bunker down in several different locations. They all come with a sense of eeriness and contain horrors lurking around any corner. The look of the zombies is great and I was glad to see that practical effects were used for their design. We do see a fair amount of CGI gore, especially when the zombies are shot in the head, but that is to be expected these days. Even George A. Romero talked (at a panel I attended) about how using this CGI tactical saves a lot of time (and therefore money) in zombie films these days. So, this didn’t break the film for me. I was glad to see that the kills were done in full-frontal fashion, and that we did see plenty of practical gore FX so long as the scenes were up close. The acting performances are good, but surprisingly nobody steals the show. Glenn Close is great but this film doesn’t really allow her to show off her chops. I will say that I was a bit disappointed in the execution of Melanie, who is portrayed Sennia Nanua. At first, she really steals the show. However, as the film went on and she had to step up and save those around her I noticed the execution weaken. This is especially the case during a latter scene where she must ward off a group of child hungries ready to much on her “friends”. She did not fare well as a brute, although I wish she would have as it would have made this an iconic scene.
Overall, The Girl with All the Gifts is a solid zombie film that offers something new to the sub-genre. It’s story is engaging and thanks to good direction we are treated to positive zombie horror I suggest you experience yourself.