From the title alone, it would be easy to think that “The Girl with All the Gifts” is a family film or a touching coming-of-age story. In actuality, it’s a zombie film—or at least that’s what it is on the surface.
Based on the bestselling book by M.R. Carey and directed by Colm McCarthy, “The Girl” begins by introducing the audience to Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a polite and unassuming child who is kept in a windowless facility with others her age. Each day, the children are brought into a classroom to be taught by various teachers, such as Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), Melanie’s favorite. Also stationed at the facility are soldiers such as the no-nonsense Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) and a calculating scientist, Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close).
As with the book, it is best to go into the movie knowing as little as possible, so if you’re already sold then I encourage you to put this review down and go to the theater (or pick up the book) at your convenience. Not convinced? Still reading? Fine. Mild spoilers.
Outside the safety of the base, the world has been overrun by zombies, or “hungries” as the film calls them. As you may have already guessed, the base can’t stay safe forever, and it isn’t long before the base is overrun by the flesh-eating horde and the aforementioned characters have to go on the run in order to survive.
The film does a great job of injecting some life into the zombie genre, the popularity of which has begun to decline as of late. The hungries are by no means your average members of the undead and have their own rules as to how they operate. They are also based on an actual parasitic fungus, Cordyceps, which thankfully is limited to insect hosts in the real world. This basis for the virus makes the film all the more chilling and adds a certain degree of credibility to the hungries. Unlike most zombies, they also have various stages and degrees of behavior and infection. The film does a great job of conveying these unique characteristics clearly without spending too much time on them. It does succumb to a few tired cliches of the zombie genre, but the zombies themselves prove to be a fresh take on the subject.
In addition to writing the novel, Carey also wrote the screenplay. Still, there are a few differences between the two. One change is that the film swaps the races of the two main characters, which alters some of the story’s subtext but doesn’t necessarily detract anything.
The film definitely fixes one problem from the book, which is the abrupt ending. The film doesn’t make it any longer, but since the whole narrative of the movie moves along at a quick pace, it allows the ending to feel more cohesive with the rest of the film. Both the book and the film do a great job of conveying the motives and humanity of the characters, especially the more unsavory ones, albeit in different ways. While the book does this through telling the reader the characters’ thoughts, the film gets this across through the strong performances of its actors.
Many of the actors give great performances, with the standout being Nanua, who is able to make Melanie sympathetic at one moment and terrifying the next. One of her best scenes is when Melanie explores the outside world for the first time in her life. This is a requisite scene for most films dealing with the post-apocalypse, but Nanua makes her interactions both appear credible and enjoyable for the audience to watch.
The film’s setting is certainly a place to explore. While most post-apocalyptic stories involve scorched and desolate landscapes, this world pops with lush foliage and overgrown forests. The bright greens of the outside world are especially jarring when contrasted with the drab grays of the enclosed facility. Colorful as it may be, it makes the earth seem all the more menacing, highlighting how nature has taken over. The soundtrack is also effective, often consisting of humming and chanting that toes the line between calming and menacing, much like the environment.
The film is enjoyable, but also has something meaningful to say. It alludes to a few parables and thought experiments throughout, and may even be considered as one itself. Various moral dilemmas are brought up during the plot, and there are several comparisons to today’s political climate. Throughout its story, the film confronts the consequences of “othering” and of how people may react when introduced to those who are different from them or to things they don’t understand. Yes, this is a zombie film with guts and gore, but it also has brains and a heart.