In any classroom, Melanie (Sennia Nanua), the central character of The Girl With All The Gifts, would be a model student. She’s bright and responsive. She clearly does her homework. What’s more, she’s the rare student for whom learning comes naturally, fueled by her own desire to understand how the world works. That she keeps this passion alive even while imprisoned in an underground English army base is all the more extraordinary, especially given her daily routine. Each morning, she’s strapped into a wheelchair at gunpoint by soldiers who can’t hide their hate and fear. Each night, she’s left alone in her cell. Then it all starts again, only sometimes there’s one less student in the classroom.
In some ways, it’s best to go into The Girl With All The Gifts knowing little more than that. Directed by Colm McCarthy working from a script by comics veteran Mike Carey, who adapted the screenplay from his novel of the same name, it’s firmly — sometimes too firmly — set in the world of a recognizable genre. That genre first suggests itself when one of the students attempts to bite an instructor, then fully reveals itself when zombies start to overrun the base. Called “hungries” by the humans, they’re swift-footed, 28 Days Late-style beasties with a relentless desire to eat the flesh of the living.
So what does that make Melanie? Neither fully human nor fully zombie, she’s part of an upcoming generation with a foot in each world. She can thrill to stories from Greek mythology, including the story of Pandora that gives the film its title, and understand the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, but she also gets uncontrollable urges that make her a danger to anyone around her with a pulse.
In the wake of a horrific zombie attack, Melanie, her favorite teacher Helen (Gemma Arterton), a scientist determined to dissect Melanie in the search for a cure (Glenn Close), and a career military man (Paddy Considine), and a handful of survivors hit the road in search for safer territory, sometimes with a face mask-clad Melanie strapped into a chair atop of their truck.
There’s a lot that’s familiar about The Girl With All The Gifts, which adds echoes of Children of Men into its 28 Days Later-inspired world. That the hungries respond most powerfully to smell makes them novel, but they’re otherwise monsters we’ve seen many times before, and the middle act of the film doesn’t have much to distinguish it from any other zombie movie out there, apart from the excellent cast.
Small touches can go a long way, however, and McCarthy uses his hungries well, particularly in chilling scenes of his zombies standing comatose, waiting for something worth killing to come along, and one scene in which a maternal hungry pushing a cart. Well played by the promising Nanua, Melanie’s a smartly crafted heroine, too, at once a charming girl and a collection of monstrous impulses. She’s driven to help her friends but just as aware of her needs. In one especially graphic scene in movie that doesn’t go light on gore, she catches and eats a cat and then collapses in a state of ecstasy, like a Trainspotting junkie.
But it’s really the big picture of the film that sets it apart. We’re not short on films and TV shows — zombie-themed or otherwise — that ask what happens after an Earth-shaking catastrophe. But we don’t have many that consider what happens after that. What kind of world will the next generation inherit? What kind of people will live there? How will they adapt? Would we recognize them as human?
Close’s character wants to save the world, but as the characters draw closer to their destination, it becomes increasingly clear that there might not be a world to save — or at least the world as they’ve known it. But in Melanie they have a vision of the future that suggests that the new world might not be that bad, even if it has no place for them in it. Pandora unleashed all the ills in the world but kept help in reserve. Yet sometimes hope takes unexpected forms, and for some it might not even look like hope at all and by recognizing that, The Girl With All the Gifts becomes more affecting, and harder, movie than the zombie visions that inspired it.
The Girl With All the Gifts opens in select theaters and will be available via on demand services this Friday, February 24th.