Written by: Daniel Hadley
Director: Colm MCcarthy
Cast: Glenn Close, Paddy Considine, Gemma Arterton, Sennia Nanua
My view on the zombie subgenre has become quite tainted of late. I feel that the over exposure of zombies in popular culture has led to an inundation of low grade zombie genre fair that has really muddied the waters. With the best recent example of the genre being the terrific Train to Busan and while that stands as a truly brilliant example of the genre, unfortunately to my mind it stands alone; arguments can also be made for Maggie (though I don’t think that movie is as good as most). Now if you were to up the number of theatrically released Zombie movies over the years then you may disagree with me, and I wouldn’t really have a leg to stand on, but as most horror fans know, our beloved genre thrives on independently released small budget productions. And as of late the amount of zombie movies that fall into that category has been quite substantial and most have (in my opinion) been found wanting.
So, when I saw a movie as beautifully shot, well-acted, well directed, that touts a truly fantastic story like The Girl with All the Gifts I was taken a back. A popular genre will always eventually become inundated with mediocre offerings when it becomes as popular as the zombie subgenre has and don’t get me wrong, what I am saying here can apply to any genre of movie. Most big studios will just churn out whatever is popular and the same can be said of the smaller studios, as direct to video zombie are a dime a dozen these days. The reason I have such a stick up my ass over the zombie genre is because I love zombies and I love zombie movies, therefor like any zombie fanboy I tend to watch more of them than the average movie goer because I want a truly great one to come around. I have to say that I have been a little spoiled of late. Train to Busan was a great movie, and I can take one gem amongst a litany of duds, so for me I felt satisfied to get that truly great zombie movie I had been waiting for and I was ready to hang up my hat on that search for the foreseeable. So, imagine my joy when the credits rolled on The Girl with All the Gifts.
The only real comparisons that these two movies share is that they are both zombie movies and they are both very – and I mean very – good. The Girl with All the Gifts opens to Melanie (played perfectly by Sennia Nanua) waking up in her cell and preparing herself for class as two heavily armed soldiers secure her head and limbs into a chair that you might imagine Hannibal Lector to be seated in if he were to ever make a court appearance. Melanie is one of twenty children who, we come to discover later in the film, are infected with a zombie like fungal infection that has reduced the vast majority of the population into mindless killers. Melanie, along with the other children, are still very infectious and arguably more dangerous than the drones that inhabit the world around them. But they maintain full cognitive function. They think, they feel. After an attending class the main players are introduced and we are given a brief glimpse into the dehumanizing treatment of the children by the soldiers of what we come to learn is a research base. While unpleasant, the soldiers’ attitude towards the twenty children is not unwarranted. Most of the soldiers refer to them as abortions which – through good story telling that I’ll get into later – is not just a hurtful nickname. After the compound is overrun by a horde of infected, a small group, along with Melanie make it out alive and begin to make their way across the country towards the next safe haven.
What’s brilliant about this film, and what I appreciated most is its lack of pandering to the audience and strictly pertinent use of expository dialogue. Everything we as the viewer needs to know is shown very organically and when something does require some explanation the dialogue is delivered very naturally. There is a very fine flow to the storytelling on display here, visual cues and background detail are used to great effect to clue the audience in as to what is happening and why; there are no needlessly crowbarred in news segments to preface the movie before it starts proper. Everything we as the audience need to know is shown to us as the story moves along. Such an approach to filmmaking has been quite absent from the zombie genre for some time. Think back to World War Z and how Brad Pitt’s character went from one exposition dump to the next before he had a revelation that frankly should have been obvious to any medical professional from the outset. In The Girl with All the Gifts nothing is told to us that we do not need to know, and yet everything is explained if you are paying attention to the details. Filmmaking like this shows that the filmmakers respect the audience enough to understand what we are seeing without having to dumb anything down and I’ll give this approach the props it deserves whenever I see it.
What The Girl with All the Gifts has over its contemporaries (other than Train to Busan, seriously, I loved that movie) is that it presents us with human beings, not action heroes, snarky self-aware dickheads or the worst offender, the overtly irrational and overly emotional idiot (ok, Train to Busan had that business man who… sorry no spoilers). There are many more and frankly any one of those archetypes is enough to remove any emotional resonance I may have had to any and all of the characters in a movie and that’s because tropes like that remind me that I am not watching people, I’m merely watching fictional characters. As long as what the characters do and say make sense within the real world or within the universe presented on film, then I’m on board and my emotional investment is assured and thankfully, The Girl with All the Gifts like Train to Busan before it achieves that feat (seriously if you haven’t already, just watch Train to Busan).
The story I have presented within this review may sound cookie cutter and having not read the book this movie is based on, I also thought the same. After the first act had transpired and I believed that this would simply be an escort mission, I was a little disappointed. But as I like to say, a familiar story well told is still a good story. Luckily though, The Girl with All the Gifts drops off of its seemingly well-trodden route and goes in a direction I wasn’t expecting. I won’t go into the plot any more than that except to say that this a rare film that has no real villains. There is no antagonist though initially there appears to be. The zombies of course are a threat, but the girl with all the gifts presents questions to which there is no right or wrong answer. The only movie I can think of in recent memory to do something similar was the slightly over rated (but I still really liked it) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I may have already said too much so I’ll stop there.
Now as much as I would love to go into each of the characters, I feel that would reveal too much of the plot. I went into the movie completely blind and I’ll advise anyone looking to watch this movie to do the same. Though I feel it would be remiss of me not to mention the performances from the cast. Glenn Close is fantastic (as she seemingly never fails to be), as is Paddy Considine and Gemma Arterton. No one goes overboard with their performance, there are no emotional blow outs, no over the top reactions, no one suddenly starts relaying their tragic backstory out of nowhere in some ham-fisted attempt to make us care. The three adult leads along with Sennia Nanua deliver nuanced, layered performances along with subtle character building moments that drew me in and gave me no real choice but to care, so I say bravo.
Director Colm McCarthy and Cinematographer Simon Dennis (who up to this point have both mainly worked on TV projects and smaller budget films) deliver pure gold on the visual front. The Girl with All the Gifts is stunning, even down to the visual aesthetic. The Girl with All the Gifts gives us a city that has been reclaimed by nature and while not dissimilar to the above mentioned Dawn of the Planet of the Apes it differentiates itself enough as to not be called a rip off (if you want get to the nitty gritty of it, the video game Enslaved did it first). The film sports lush greens and vibrant yellows, and it all adds visual flair to the slow moving and steady camera work to deliver some truly beautiful shots. The early attack on the military base is incredibly well-shot and everything we see is punctuated by a fantastically haunting score.
With everything I have said you might be fooled into believe that this movie is flawless, and as much as I wish that were so, there are some faults. No movie can be stamped with the seal of perfection, after all. An instance where a secondary character seemingly throws caution to the wind for no real reason stood out, though this moment can be explained through his character’s apparent lack of experience. But said lack of experience is never fully addressed before hand. There is also a moment where Glenn Close’s character appears to recklessly endanger her life and those of everyone around her for the sake of shocking the audience with a grisly reveal. Fortunately, her actions are explained, but the damage has been done by that point. There are a few more things I could get into but I won’t succumb to nit-picking. Like all movies there are things that can be scrutinized and moments of weakness.
So recently the zombie genre has taken two relatively large shots to the arm with this and Train to Busan (watch it, watch it now, do it) and I’m hoping for the trifecta (look I don’t care if the shtick is annoying, you need to watch Train to Busan).