Every so often, a film comes along that reminds me why I used to obsessively collect every movie with even the slightest of connections to the undead I could find and stack them alphabetically on my shelf. The Girl With All the Gifts, despite its shortcomings, is one of those films.
I’ve seen (and often soldiered on throughout) plenty of zombie movies over the years. Whether they’ve been spat out by a volcano or are having a nibble on Kurt Angle, the zombie subgenre is nothing if not brave in its attempt to switch things up. Although you could argue that the main threat in The Girl With All the Gifts aren’t technically zombies as they don’t come back to life, it’s worth including the movie nonetheless as it’s a shining indication that a tired subgenre still has lots to offer.
Without wanting to give too much of the plot away (its first hour is a masterful build of mystery), The Girl With All the Gifts takes some worn ideas and gives them a welcome tweaking. Focusing on the impact of an aggressive fungal infection on the world’s populace, its closest narrative sibling is The Last of Us, with which it shares a few familiar beats.
Its main character, Melanie (Sennia Nanua), is a young girl with the same infection that the hordes outside the army base where she’s held “captive” have, which turns them into cannibalistic drones. But there’s one difference between she and the “hungries”. Melanie, along with the other children being monitored under oppressive conditions, can think. She has a conscience, hopes, and dreams, largely influenced by her teacher’s Greek mythology readings, though the film does a superb job of making you question just how much of it is her or the fungus wrapped around her brain.
Gemma Arterton doesn’t get enough credit as an actress – she’s terrific here as the mother figure and teacher to Melanie, worn down by trying to irgnore her ethics on an almost daily basis. Despite sometimes sleepwalking through her roles, Arterton puts her all into this, showing a maturity in her acting that’s developed wonderfully over the past few years. Elsewhere, Paddy Considine’s cynical soldier transforms from a good impression of Dead Man’s Shoes’ Richard into arguably the most likable character in the entire film. Glenn Close nails her performance (as always) as the painfully realist scientist bent on finding a cure, no matter the cost.
The Girl With All the Gifts offers suspense and plenty of viscera to grab the attention of most horror movie veterans, though neither are as potent at keeping your interest as the dynamics between the characters. Too many similar movies focus on explaining the past; why what’s happening is happening. Instead, the exposition is expertly leaked during conversations between its characters, or in the signs of degradation on buildings. The script is never too over-encumbered by misery, nor is it too heavy on the morality. Themes of parenthood and responsibility are present throughout, making it a much smarter effort than the not-another-zombie-movie crowd may initially think. That’s not to say that The Girl With All the Gifts is all talk, no bite. Its action scenes come sparingly, but when they do, they’re always tense, helped by the speed of the infected and the understated score. Try not to grip your knees throughout.
There’s something about the ugly beauty of the end of the world that always fascinates me, no matter how many times you see a desolate highway or empty city streets. Colm McCarthy, in his second big screen feature, recognises the allure of this, making The Girl With All the Gifts an often captivatingly stark movie with some stunning landscapes, despite its setting in a murky, post-apocalyptic Britain. The infected BT Tower in London is a particular highlight, though there are enough wonderful shots to comfortably say that it’s one of the most arresting post-apocalyptic worlds built from behind the lens since Danny Boyle’s seminal 28 Days Later.
Despite offering a lot to fall in love with, The Girl With All the Gifts falls down flat in its final five minutes, leading to a resolution that just doesn’t sit right, cracking open up an enormous plothole in the process. Even before the out-of-left-field conclusion, the movie shows tired legs and explores the wrong avenues, wandering into silliness that’s supposed to be reminiscent of Lord of the Flies.
Even though most of its 111 minutes are hard to look away from, The Girl With All the Gifts’ last twenty are so miscalculated that it hampers the film as a whole. It’s still a superb effort that breathes fresh life into cinematic zombie lore and one that’s easy to recommend. More of its peers need to follow suit.
Treading familiar ground with slightly different shoes, The Girl With All the Gifts revitalises a tired subgenre, disappointing conclusion aside.
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