England in a dystopian near future and a mysterious fungal disease has swept the planet, turning the vast majority of people into ‘hungries’, with no free will and an insatiable desire for human flesh. The only hope rests with a small group of children who became infected in the womb and have retained the ability to think and feel despite their cravings. When their military base is overwhelmed, teacher Helen Justineau, Sgt. Eddie Parks and Dr Caroline Caudwell find themselves looking after teen ‘hungry’ Melanie as they race toward a possible cure.
Is there really an appetite for yet another zombie movie? We are now overrun with the undead wanting to suck our brains and eat our flesh on screens both small and large; surely we’re all getting a bit bored of it by now? There can’t possibly be anything new to say or show, can there?
Well, yes and no. The Girl with All the Gifts is a refreshing new take on a tale as old as cinema itself, but it does so by stealing all the best bits from many other films, and not all of them involving the dead rising to kill the living. That it still feels new and invigorating, and with a minuscule £4 million budget to boot, is quite remarkable.
This being a smart and intelligent movie, and a decidedly non-blockbuster genre entry, we are neither spoon fed the plot, nor has it been leaked in countless PR stories in the preceding weeks. Opening with exceedingly bright young girl Melanie (an astonishing Sennia Nanua in her first ever feature) being bound and escorted by tough military types, it comes as a surprise to find her in some type of military base classroom being taught by the caring and patient Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton). Aside from the fact all the children are wearing prison-style clothing and are strapped to their chairs in Hannibal Lector fashion, this could be any school (albeit one in need of some serious funding). It’s only when Paddy Considine’s Sgt. Eddie Parks turns up with some exposition and a quick demonstration are we aware of what these children are, and what world they are part of.
With a whole world that needs building for us, it’s a brave choice to forego a voiceover or lengthy written explanation at the top of the film – the first choices of many a dystopian film it has to be said. Instead, we learn of what’s happened along with Melanie, who has spent all her life at this base. The world has once again been overrun with an infection, this time due to a fungal disease, that causes victims to crave human flesh. Small enclaves of uninfected exist and some hybrid children, infected in the womb but who retain autonomy and cognitive thought, are being studied (and dissected) in the hope of developing a cure. When the base is compromised, teacher Justineau, soldiers Parks and Dillon and Doctor Caldwell – who is on the verge of a cure breakthrough – escape with Melanie and head toward the possibility of safety the other side of London.
Melanie is never anything but polite, helpful and non-threatening and slowly Parks and Dillon begin to trust her. Dr. Caldwell only wants to keep her alive for the sake of finishing her research – which will result in the girl’s death, but also a cure – and teacher Helen Justineau has maternal instincts toward her that may prove the downfall of everything.
With a deserted London and the sprightly ‘hungries’ – British zombies are never the walking dead it seems – echoes of 28 Days and Months Later are strong. That’s no bad thing at all and lets face it, if you’re setting a zombie pic in the UK you’ve really got to use some London landmarks; there is also something rather thrilling about seeing branches of Waterstones and Marks & Spencer filled with flesh-craving hungries. As our motley band battle through the hordes, Glenn Close channels some Cruella De Vil with her need for the young girl, Paddy Considine gives good gruff as weary yet warming Parks and Anthony Welsh more than holds his own as a young grunt completely out of his comfort zone. But all are utterly eclipsed by young Nanua, who manages to portray Melanie as sweet and caring at the same time as making her incredibly dangerous. Perhaps cinemas driest line of 2016 comes when Helen asks Melanie if she’d like a cat; “No thanks, I’ve just had one” comes the deadpan reply from the feline blood-flecked zombie. Only Gemma Arterton looks a little out of place, her teacher seeming far too easy-going for the horrors the world has become.
That small budget barely shows, although obviously don’t expect bucket loads of CGI or full-on devasted London scenescapes. Go small like this and it’s the story and characters that have to shine, and shine they do. The ending – which borrows almost wholesale from both Invasion of the Bodysnatchers and Day of the Triffids – mostly works with only a final scene jarring a little. We won’t spoil it for you but it’s safe to say you’ll probably end up scratching your head as to exactly what the long-term plan of a survivor is. It’s a small quibble though. Like Melanie, The Girl with All the Gifts is smart, clever and more than a little dangerous.