The Girl with All the Gifts (2017)
110 min., rated R.
What’s one more YA novel adaptation about a post-apocalyptic society anyway, especially when it’s a good one? Based on Mike Carey’s novel of the same name, “The Girl with All the Gifts” centers on the aftermath of another zombie apocalypse—something audiences probably didn’t think they needed or wanted to see again—but TV director Colm McCarthy and screenwriter Mike Carey lend some sophistication and thought-provoking ideas to their already grim, bold vision that doesn't spare the viscera. Like seven seasons of “The Walking Dead” have taught its viewers, the survivors and human monsters are sometimes more interesting than the zombies. The new wrinkle here is adding a special hybrid character: an infected child called a “hungry.”
Startlingly talented beyond her years, 13-year-old newcomer Sennia Nanua is most captivating as “hungry” Melanie, a sentient, domesticated breed who wakes up every morning in a bunker. She must strap herself into a wheelchair and secure her head before military guards come to her door and escort her to a class of other children just like her. Sympathetic, compassionate teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) sees Melanie as more than a test subject and just a gifted model student, while the head scientist at the base, Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close), is close to finding a vaccine to cure the outbreak and will never slack on gathering data, and soldier Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) has his reasons to not care for any “hungries.” When there’s a breach on the base by hordes of rabid zombies, the aforementioned characters, including Melanie, and a few other survivors will have to band together and make their way to a ruined London.
With a more streamlined approach to storytelling that uses familiar territory to its advantage, “The Girl with All the Gifts” resists more exposition than necessary and even avoids using the “Z” word. Adapting his own novel, screenwriter Mike Carey solidly handles the film’s sense of world-building, organically letting the viewer in on the widespread fungal infection through bodily fluids. Most of the characters are of the archetypal variety, but with the likes of the nice-to-see Glenn Close, Paddy Considine, and Gemma Arterton, they expose glimmers of humanity and a bit more complexity. At the same time, characters are sometimes too frustratingly human. For example, given the circumstances where “hungries” could be anywhere, military characters who go off on their own still make rookie mistakes.
Amidst all the like-minded genre offerings, “The Girl with All the Gifts” is smart and engrossing. Director Colm McCarthy doesn't quite change the game, but he brings fresh blood to a concept that couldn't sound more familiar on paper. The friendship between Melanie and Miss Justineau is key to fortifying the viewer's investment in these characters, and McCarthy capably stages more than a handful of moments with hold-your-breath apprehension, like one where the group must tiptoe past the sleeping "hungries" that infest an abandoned mall. The film makes the most of its $4-million budget, with an impressive scale and textured production design, and Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s score of repetitive chants and hums is haunting to a subliminal degree. With so many shows and movies concerning zombie-adjacent viruses, the subgenre, at this point, really has to bring it, and fortunately, “The Girl with All the Gifts” shouldn’t get lost in the glut.