It is easy to see how The Girl With All The Gifts could have been toned down and transformed into a generic YA movie in its cinematic adaptation. In the 2014 best-selling novel, the story is told from the point of view of all five central character. Here, director Colm McCarthy focuses on the titular tween character Melanie, exploring this plague-ravaged world from her point of view. This is the sort of decision that usually stems not from artistic integrity, but from money making.
A British zombie movie to be proud of
In an alternate universe, it isn’t hard to see this being toned down to a PG-13 certificate, with the darkness of this world being doused with the same blockbuster respectability and family friendliness of The Hunger Games franchise. The fact we are focusing only on the young girl of the title could easily be interpreted, from the outside, as the sign that the producers were very consciously trying to make a new complicated YA heroine in the same vein as Katniss Everdeen.
Thankfully, McCarthy’s fantastic film appears to have gone in a completely different direction, finding something distinctive in the oft-trodden zombie genre. The opening 20 minutes lull you into a false sense of security, portraying what appears to be a closed-off society run by those in military uniforms.
Its vaguely fascistic edge in these moments makes it feel like a tired Hunger Games rip-off, with the fantasy undertones of every other YA franchise lurking ever present in the background. It would be easy to draw conclusions from this cliche-heavy, poorly characterised opening that this is merely a grittier version of the same young adult fantasy sub-genre that box office analysts declared dead at the start of the year.
We are introduced to a group of zombie-human hybrid children who are being kept under lock and key at a military base, kept alive purely as scientific research, picked apart one by one every single day. These “hungries” (if a zombie virus ever did break out, nobody would be coining such ridiculous terms to describe it) have the ability to think and feel, which frequently gets teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) in hot water due to her compassion and dare to humanise these creatures.
Sgt. Parks (Paddy Considine) has nothing but disgust for them, showing nothing but hatred towards smart-Alec pack leader Melanie (newcomer Sennia Nanua), the teacher’s pet of the group. One day, during her research, Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) chooses the gifted Melanie as her subject, knowing she holds the cure to the disease. That’s when hundreds of feral zombies break into the army base and all the mismatched characters have to flee to London to get in contact with a larger military base and secure supplies.
The Girl With All the Gifts is a film that can only be discussed in vague terms. The marketing campaign has focused almost entirely on the dire, claustrophobic opening stretch of the film, with no focus on the effective real-world horror that follows. This is an incredibly smart move: in an era where trailers can give away vital plot twists, I had no idea where the film was headed after the opening half hour. The direction it does head in manages to perfect the balancing act of paying tribute to both classic zombie films and dystopian sci-fi’s, as well as building a coherent allegory in the same vein as George A. Romero’s most renowned zombie pictures.
Every successful zombie film uses the creatures as stand-ins for a real societal evil, making a satirical comment in-between the scares. Night of the Living Dead tackled racism and police brutality, whereas Dawn of the Dead tackled consumerism, something which is given a cheeky nod to here, albeit in the least glamorous, most British way possible. The pristine shopping malls of 70’s America are replaced by the run-down corner shops of modern Britain, where many high streets are defined by having half the stores closed and hidden away behind shutters.
Allegory that just begs for repeated viewing
Here, it isn’t a comment on consumerism, just a subtle reference to a titan of the genre, being translated to Britain in a manner far removed from Romero’s Hollywood monster movie sheen. The real allegory is in plain sight at all times, yet it isn’t until the final moments when you take notice and realise what has been staring at you all along, and even then, it is still coded in a way designed to inspire multiple interpretations.
Depending on who you ask, it could be about human evolution, an anxiety over a youth who will grow up to be smarter than us or even a fear of artificial intelligence taking over and throwing the human race to the sidelines. It manages to offer the populist thrills of a blockbuster, with plenty of introspective thought hiding away in the margins.
Although the deserted high streets instantly bring to mind 28 Days Later, there is no other connecting tissue between the two highly distinctive zombie films. Instead, the main point of reference for the film appears to be Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. Not only does this tangentially relate to third act revelations which I will neither spoil or allude to, but the bold filmmaking style recalls the same eye-catching way cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki captured the ravaged London city streets for Children of Men. As soon as we enter the real world and the army base is under siege, we are treated to a fantastic long take of pure zombie mayhem- in the most artistic manner you could possibly imagine.
Cinematographer Simon Dennis hasn’t got many film credits to his name; he’s best known for 2012’s dire Brit flick The Sweeney, although his collaboration with McCarthy behind the cameras of the BBC’s Peaky Blinders has no doubt helped inform his visual abilities to make low budget productions look period appropriate.
Like Children of Men, you have no doubt that you are glimpsing a realistic post-societal environment with your own unflinching eyes. That he manages to capture that look with only the tiniest fraction of Cuarón’s mega bucks budget is reason to celebrate. Dennis reportedly took a drone to Chernobyl, filming many establishing cityscape shots outside the abandoned cities and it pays off. You have no doubt this is the London of the future.
The aesthetics for the movie are as accomplished as they can possibly be, considering the budgetary circumstances. Although The Girl With All The Gifts starts off constrained, cliched and often laughable (when you first see the young “hungries” attempt to bite, it is embarrassing to watch), it is a rare case of budget-inflating scope actually helping the movie, instead of hindering it. Here, the screenplay becomes more realised, with hollow characters developing into empathetic figures across the board. Even the most cliched dialogue, including an early reference to Schrodinger’s Cat, ends up paying off in more ways than one, depending on how you read the sure-to-be controversial final scene.
Although it gets off to a shaky start, The Girl With All the Gifts develops into a distinctive entry to the zombie genre. It isn’t groundbreaking, but it is still exceptionally rare to see a zombie film with a brain and a beating human heart.
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The Girl With All the Gifts is in UK cinemas now. All international release dates are here.
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