Joyce Glasser reviews The Girl with all the Gifts (September 23, 2016) Cert. 15, 110 min.
Ten points for the title of this zombie movie with its catchy alliteration (scriptwriter Mike Carey, adapting his own novel for the screen) and ten points more for the talented cast. Gemma Arterton (Gemma Bovery, Tamara Drewe), is the warm, motherly, teacher Helen Justineau; newcomer Sennia Nanua is her super-smart 10-year-old student, Melanie; Paddy Considine (Child 44, Pride, The Bourne Legacy) is Sgt Eddie Parks; and Glen Close (Dangerous Liaisons, 101 Dalmatians, Fatal Attraction) is Dr Caroline Caldwell who needs to extract a fungus from Mel’s brain in order to save humanity.
Now deduct five points because these hungry actors are hardly nourished by their one-dimensional, predictable characters and lackluster script. And deduct five more because Colm McCarthy’s feature debut promises to differentiate itself from a host of zombie movies by a half-baked idea and unexciting visuals.
Somewhere outside of London a small group of teachers, soldiers and doctors/scientists are holed up in a military compound. Outside are thousands of zombies inflicted by a deadly fungal virus. Inside, is a group of captured ‘hungries’: hybrid zombie-children whose brains contain a fungus that might produce a vaccine to save human kind. They act as normal children until the smell of human bodily fluids turns them ravenous.
So you may well wonder why all the kiddies are strapped into wheel chairs and wheeled from their cells into a class room where they are forced to memorize the periodic tables. When the strict, unfeeling teacher disappears, in comes Helen who tells the children stories and dares to suggest a creative writing assignment. Her prize pupil, Melanie (Nanua) writes a story that touches Helen’s heart – and is intended to. This touchy-feely curriculum change will cost Helen her job if discovered, but that is hardly a threat.
While we are still confused, even after a demonstration of the hungries’ true nature, we learn that poor Mel must supply a number to Dr Caldwell each night. In the morning, the ‘hungry’ assigned to that cell number is missing, presumed to have been chosen as that night’s guinea pig.
When Mel calls her own cell number and she is under the scalpel, the alarm sounds, just, as they say, in the nick of time. Parks, two privates, Dr Caldwell, and the now inseparable Helen and Mel find themselves shooting their way out of the compound and through the gates in a military vehicle heading for the Thames. With no petrol after an attack, the group, now down to five, must walk through hostile territory to London where Dr Caldwell can make her vaccine.
From here any hope of originality fades as the film resembles Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic horror film 28 Days Later, in which a similar mysterious virus has spread throughout the UK leaving a handful of survivors to march through an inhospitable English landscape to find refuge. That film was half funded by the British Film Council with lottery money. This film is half funded by the BFI (that now controls lottery money).
Here the walk is visually less interesting and that much more familiar. There are product placement signs for Mercedes and Next on the remains of crumbling towers and shopping malls, and a tense moment when the team must sneak past thousands of sleeping zombies to search for food. Finally, on the outskirts of the City, the group discover a purpose built laboratory vacated by scientists like Dr Caldwell we assume. What luck!
Melanie meanwhile, makes herself useful as she is the only one who can search for food without the smell of human bodily fluids setting off the zombies. Even Parks now trusts her to return. While the mouth-guard remains on while around humans, the hand-cuffs come off. While Mel is out on patrol she grabs herself a live cat or rat her mouth and clothing showing the signs, as a child is left with an ice-cream beard and stained clothing.
When Melanie comes across a group of young hungries like herself and she is torn between saving mankind and identifying with her own kind. Caldwell knows that it is just a matter of time before the pod like balls attached to trees and growing now on buildings burst, poisoning the air for humans. She has one last go at persuading Melanie to do the right thing, promising her that it will not hurt. By this point in the film, you might find yourself praying that Melanie complies.
The film has one of those endings that is supposed to leave people talking for days, but in this case it might leave you feeling let down. You might wish that the filmmakers had thought through their idea a bit more. After traipsing through the by now familiar dystopian landscape for so long, we really deserve a bigger pay-off.
You can watch the film trailer here: