The Girl With All the Gifts is brilliant and uncompromising.
Elevated by a smart script drawing from a clever book, and fantastically tense direction from Colm McCarthy, The Girl With All the Gifts is at once a brilliant example of the classic zombie movie tropes and a sly subversion of them. The Girl With All the Gifts was originally published in 2014, but it feels strangely of this cultural moment. It is very much a young adult science-fiction commentary on the world as it exists today, perfectly capturing the anxiety simmering beneath Brexit and Trumpism.
The Girl With All the Gifts in an exception piece of work, Carey’s script understanding the myriad of genre conventions that it is navigating while McCarthy pushes the material just a little bit further. It is unsettling and palpable in the ways that a post-apocalyptic zombie film needs to be, but it also goes that bit further. The strongest aspect of The Girl With All the Gifts is a willingness to follow its strands through to their logical conclusion, as unrelenting and confrontational as they might be.
The Girl With All the Gifts reimagines the zombie movie for a new generation.
There seems to be something inherently versatile in zombies. After all, the walking dead enjoyed quite a resurgence in the early years of the new millennium, capturing the dread of a perpetual and never-ending war on terror in films like 28 Weeks Later and television shows like The Walking Dead. Zombies clearly spoke to a deep-seated fear at the start of the new century, the fixation upon viral infection in films like Dawn of the Dead and [rec] perhaps speaking to latent uncertainties about the era of globalisation.
The Girl With All the Gifts understands these core fears, but it pushes them even further. The zombie metaphor at the heart of the film is more primal and visceral, but also more contemporary. However, to do that, The Girl With All the Gifts demonstrates a keen understanding of the workings of these types of stories. The mechanics are sound. The Girl With All the Gifts runs through the expected beats. The military base at the end of the world; a member of the team hiding an infection; a tense sequence where the leads have to sneak through a crowded public space.
Director Colm McCarthy relishes these genre trappings. There is a deeply unsettling quality to these familiar scenes, even as they play upon variations of classic zombie movie tropes. McCarthy cleverly builds discomfort through long takes and slowly building suspense. The best (and most discomforting) moments in The Girl With All the Gifts come slowly and inevitably; a figure lurching into frame, a body spasming in the background, a shape twitching under a blanket, a face gradually contorting. Like comedy, horror is all about timing, and McCarthy understands that.
There is a sense that The Girl With All the Gifts would be an enjoyable film if it were purely what it initially appears to be; a fair standard apocalyptic zombie film that just so happens to have a teenage antagonist. Carey and McCarthy are shrewd in this regard; with their British setting and their running zombies, both writer and director seem aware that 28 Days Later will be the obvious point of comparison for most audience members. Instead of playing into or away from that, the script opts to play through it.
Early in the film, Carey’s draws on the notion of the zombie as the nebulous “other”, as the monstrous and the inhuman; they are referred to as “it” and fed from dog bowls. Repeatedly over the course of the film, they are kept chained like animals. This is all very much stock zombie imagery. When one character expresses compassion for these monsters, another sternly warns, “They only present as children.” That is the starting point of The Girl With All the Gifts.
The Girl With All the Gifts shrewdly focusing on a bunch of children who have been infected by the fungal organism. This initially appears to be a fairly standard twist, as if The Girl With All the Gifts is positioning itself at a point of intersection between The Hunger Games and The Walking Dead. The viewpoint character is Melanie, a young girl with no experience of life out in the world who is kept in a cage for the safety of the adults working to cure the epidemic. However, what initially feels like a clever mash-up shrewdly evolves into something very different.
Melanie is a fascinating creation, brilliantly brought to life by Sennia Nanua. There is something very bold in the way that The Girl With All the Gifts chooses to present Melanie. The narrative is undoubtedly sympathetic and compassionate towards her, but it also underscores the danger that she represents. Nanua manages to capture a worldliness that suits the character well, switching effortlessly between ruthlessly violent and eerily calm. It is a striking performance, and without it the film would not work.
Carey and McCarthy deserve a great deal of credit for being so visceral in characterising Melanie; the film makes sure that she never entirely innocent and does not hesitate to demonstrate what she is capable of doing in order to survive and at the behest of her impulses. The film has to walk a fine line; the narrative is always sympathetic to Melanie, but it is also candid about what she is and what she does. If the balance were not carefully calibrated, if Melanie were too delicate a character or too explicitly a monster, the film would collapse. Nanua, Carey and McCarthy do great work.
The Girl With All the Gifts feels very British, in a sense that it has a strangely thoughtful and lyrical quality. “Tell us a story,” Melanie begs the only teacher who seems to care about the children kept in this facility. When Melanie is asked to craft her own story, she imagines a fairytale which resembles the later plot of the movie in some key ways, and deviates in some important others. When the characters wonder what might happen to those infected by the fungal parasite, Melanie frames it in a manner that feels like a British folk tale. “They become the forest?”
(The Girl With All the Gifts evolves as the story progresses. It begins as a clever young adult twist on the zombie movie, and then transitions through a number of staples of British science-fiction. There are points at which The Girl With All the Gifts evokes The Day of the Triffids, a very British antecedent to the zombie apocalypse genre. There are also points at which The Girl With All the Gifts feels almost like a very bloody Doctor Who episode. As easy as the 28 Days Later comparison might be, perhaps the best Alex Garland comparison is Ex Machina.)
However, Carey’s script very shrewdly twists the zombie horror back around to something even more primal. The Girl With All the Gifts is a primal reproductive horror. Again, Carey is drawing on the rich foundations of the genre with nods towards the more memorable shocks of films like Dawn of the Dead, but he follows those ideas to their logical conclusion. The Girl With All the Gifts is a horror story about a world afraid of its own children and the world they have created. It is no coincidence that all the captive children wear hoodies.
Perhaps the boldest and most endearing aspect of The Girl With All the Gifts is its willingness to follow that particular thread of existential horror right to its logical conclusion. Like its central protagonist, The Girl With All the Gifts is unflinching and uncompromising. It is also brilliant.