"I am producing a vaccine, and she is the main ingredient."
Let me just say, I think ‘The Walking Dead’ is a fine show, it’s decently made, written in such a way that makes every few episodes bearable and the ensemble cast is fairly good. It’s nothing spectacular, but I’m not angered by its popularity as I am with other shows. However when it comes to how it’s impacted the zombie genre as a whole, it’s the spawn of Satan. It encourages storytellers to climb into their own rut and stay there, never improve or expand on anything, as if the primary goal is to reach a comfort zone and remain there for the rest of time in a monotonous state of repetitiveness. Luckily though, one film offers an answer.
Melanie (Sennia Nanua) has grown up in a world undergoing a zombie-like apocalypse due to a fungus known as the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. She lives under heavy guard for reasons that are initially unclear, but when her home falls to the horde and she goes on the run, it emerges that she may be the key to ending the struggle.
When a film opens with a young child being thrust out of a bare concrete cell at gunpoint, restrained and wheeled into a class with a dozen other children in the same position, it should be a clear sign that this take on the zombie genre is going to be different than what we’ve come to expect over the last few years. It harkens back to the days when genres like this could be sued to express social commentary and real issues concerning the nature of mankind, from Romero’s original fables that tackled racism and consumerism Danny Boyle’s energetic revamp in the form of ’28 Days Later’. Almost ironically, the reason ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’ evokes this reaction from me was its ability to not retreat into the past of its own genre, to carve out its own identity and style that in turn mark it out as one of the best in the history genre.
Despite taking familiar fears of ravenous undead and eerie children it spins them into a wholly fresh and excellently intelligent film. Though narratively it follows the tropes of other post-apocalyptic pictures (that being a small group of people joining together and embarking on a journey of survival) the ambition of the film and the themes it explores as well as the intrapersonal dynamic of those central characters is what makes it so remarkable. Director Colm McCarthy uses this apocalypse as a backdrop for a claustrophobic and deeply personal thriller that rarely shows the constraints of its very small budget. It is only in some of the wide angle CGI shots that the illusion is broken but they are limited in number and for the most part the focus remains squarely on the characters who are as fascinating as the disease that plagues the land, and both are treated with an almost ambivalent nature that gives the film a much more grounded feel.
Another great addition is how convincing each actor is in their role. Not only does each performance establish a distinctive and empathetic personality but the way the role is written allows every main player to explore hidden depth and display a clear motivation for their actions. Glenn Close’s own steely determination, Paddy Constantine’s no nonsense type and Gemma Arterton all make for interesting counterpoints to one another in their dynamic and versatility. But the main emotional crux of the movie lies with Sennia Nanua, whose performance compiles a striking mix of childlike vulnerability and visceral savagery, and in the post-apocalyptic world she occupies it’s difficult to state which aspect is more frightening.
At times ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’ can feel deliberately disorienting, refusing to provide copious amounts of exposition during its first act and refraining from revealing any hidden motivations until its final act, and that will undoubtedly prove frustrating for some. But for those willing to wait it can offer a film that is equally keen to tackle both the horrific and dramatic aspects of its own story without resorting to emotional manipulation or cheap gimmicks. It is also packed with striking visuals that will undoubtedly feel reminiscent of the repurposed London landscape from ’28 Days Later’ but like Danny Boyle’s film the true haunting nature of the film comes from the characters journey of self-discovery, destabilisation and their own potential inhumanity to one another. It is here that the film truly taps into societal fears of warfare, imprisonment and environmental change that reaches into our own consciousness far more than simple blood and gore, though there’s plenty of that as well.
Challanging and compelling as well as viscerally thrilling and complex, ‘The Girl with all the Gifts’ is a triumph of the zombie genre.