With oversaturation on the pop culture landscape over the past decade, it has become harder and harder to make zombies interesting. So often it seems as if every angle of the cannibalistic undead has been explored on the screen. That’s why the opening scenes of The Girl with All the Gifts are so remarkable. At a time when zombies seem entirely lifeless and rotting, director Colm McCarthy’s cinematic adaptation of Mike Carey’s novel injects a bit of new life into the undead. The film may not sustain that momentum across the finish line, but there’s enough originality within The Girl with All the Gifts to get you hooked from the start and carry that interest to its conclusion.
The world has been under siege by a fungal infection that has turned the population into ravenous zombies, known as “hungries” in this world. Children, however, are somewhat immune to the infection, retaining a sense of their humanity while still craving the taste of human flesh. In a heavily fortified military base in England, Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) teaches a class full of these infected children, each student strapped and restrained in their chair as to not allow them to even come close to biting anyone and spreading the disease further. Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is one of the children and is remarkably kind and subdued, leading Helen to form a bond with the child despite the vocal protests of Sergeant Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine). Elsewhere on the base, Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) is leading the scientific research into the fungal infection that has decimated humanity and she believes that she’s on the verge of breakthrough that may lead to a vaccine. One day, the fortress crumbles and the zombies lay waste to the base, leaving Helen, Eddie, and Caroline to fend for themselves while accompanied by the dangerous child Melanie. Outside the base is a world of danger as well as the possibilities of more answers as to the nature of the fungus and quite possibly the salvation for humanity.
The best aspects of The Girl with All the Gifts are present in the opening scenes. Colm McCarthy and Mike Carey (who adapted his own novel into a screenplay) create a nightmarish world without over-explaining every minute detail of this world. The story draws on various aspects of zombie mythology that have built in various movies, books, and TV shows over the years and gives it a new twist. This world is the one to emerge from the downfall of civilization and the characters live in this world as if they’ve each experienced horrors that they never want to talk about, a wonderful way to avoid needless exposition. When this sanctuary crumbles, it’s a thrilling sequence that is filled with action and gory chaos; the attack that ignites this sequence is one of the most effective scares a zombie movie has pulled off in recent memory.
However, shortly after the conclusion of this sequence does The Girl with All the Gifts fall back into a less daring, more familiar take on zombies. The characters wander the wasteland, tiptoeing along as not to arouse the hordes of the undead. At the same time, Dr. Caroline Caldwell delivers more and more moments of exposition that demystifies the cause of the zombie outbreak. It makes the middle part of the film lose its momentum and that spark of originality, though it does lead to a rather unusual conclusion which I won’t dare reveal here for spoiler purposes. As much as The Girl with All the Gifts attempts some daring things in its conclusion, the second half of the film can feel like bit of a letdown compared to its stellar first half.
With an impressive cast led by the young breakout performance of Sennia Nanua, some bold storytelling choices, and some great visceral action from Colm McCarthy, The Girl with All the Gifts is a genuinely interesting take on zombies and the best since last year’s Train to Busan. It may not live up to its full potential, but The Girl with All the Gifts is worth watching for its opening half alone and the intensity and boldness of the start will leave you intrigued enough to get to the end even if you’re underwhelmed by some of the more conventional aspects of its second half. It’s become so hard to find anything that does something different with zombie that even just half of a different take can feel like a revelation. The Girl with All the Gifts isn’t quite a revelation, but it’s certainly a worthwhile attempt that almost reaches revelatory status.
The Girl With All the Gifts
- Overall Score
With a first half that takes zombies in a new direction for the first time in a long time, The Girl with All the Gifts makes some bold storytelling choices as well as conventional ones, but it’s one of the more entertaining pieces of zombie fare in recent memory.