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There is an undeniable over saturation of zombies in popular culture in recent years. The presence of the undead has been prolific appearing in movies, TV shows, novels, comics and video games – video game critic Ben “Yahztee” Crowshaw even joked that people make zombie tales just to cope if society collapses in any other way. Zombie-like beings are set to terrorize Britain once again in the adaptation of the young adult novel The Girl With All The Gifts.
In a military bunker a group of children are held captive. The soldiers led by Sgt Parks (Paddy Considine) fear them, the scientists led by Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) is conducting experiments on the children and the only person who has any compassion for them is their teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton). Miss Justineau forms a special bond with one of the children, Melanie (Sennia Nanua). When the base is overrun by zombie like creatures called Hungries, Miss Justineau and Melanie escape with a group of soldiers and Dr. Caldwell and attempt to find a safe haven.
The Girl With All the Gifts has been well received in the UK but it is really a mix of other zombie, post-apocalyptic and sci-fi media. The movie has been compared to 28 Days Later and there are similarities like the military dimension and the use of fast zombies and it borrows from other sources – there is imagery from the 2007 version of I Am Legend and The Walking Dead; and the use of a fungus that turns people into mindless cannibals is like the video game The Last of Us as well as having a character who grew up in the aftermath of the apocalypse. There is even a little bit of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, and to a lesser extent, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome in the movie – showing a group of feral children who formed their own society and methods of survival in the ruins.
The Girl With All the Gifts was written by Mike Carey who is best known as a comic book writer and worked on series’ like X-Men, Batman and Hellblazer. He adapted his own novel and the movie was helmed by TV director Colm McCarthy – best known for directing the second season of the historical crime series Peaky Blinders. For a movie based on a young adult novel Carey, McCarthy and the producers should be praised for sticking to their guns and keeping the violence and swearing – if the adaptation had been made in Hollywood the filmmakers probably would have had to make it PG-13. One of the stand-out moments was when the Hungries break into the base – it was done in one take as Melanie unleashes her bloodlust and Miss Justineau tries to protect the girl. It was a thrilling scene that could match some of the best the zombie subgenre has to offer.
The Girl With All the Gifts was made on a small budget of £4 Million but it doesn’t show. The production design, make-up and limited CGI made the movie look much bigger, as displayed by how nature is reclaiming the cities and masses of Hungries stand dormant until they smell prey. The aerial shots of a devastated London were really of Pripyat, the city evacuated because of the Chernobyl disaster, and this footage complimented what McCarthy and his production team had created. McCarthy stated Gareth Edwards’ Monsters was an influence on his movie, a low budget sci-fi road where nature is taking over and showing that the creatures people fear are going through some sort of metamorphosis.
Early on in the movie, there is references to Greek mythology, particularly the story of Pandora’s Box and Melanie’s story is like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: Melanie and the other children live underground in a bunker for the whole of their lives and Melanie’s world is suddenly expanded when she is taken to the surface. The movie is told through Melanie’s eyes and for her it’s about her new experiences – one of Melanie’s big scenes is when she explores an abandoned house and marvels at everything in it.
The other major theme in the movie is the philosophical debate that is raised – what makes someone human. The soldiers fear the children, seeing them as freaks of nature because of where they came from and Dr. Caldwell sees the children as something to study and examines whether the Hungries have any humanity left. Dr. Caldwell uses the Schrodinger’s Cat allegory to describe them. Miss Justineau is the person who spends the most time with the children and empathizes with them, seeing them as thinking, feeling beings – she is like Sally Hawkins’ character in the sci-fi movie Never Let Me Go: a teacher who becomes attached with children she’s not meant to.
The Girl With All the Gifts has a strong cast and one of the strengths of the film is the character development. The stand outs are Sennia Nanua who had the most difficult role as Melanie, the underappreciated Paddy Considine and Glenn Close. Considine seemed to play the no nonsense senior soldier who communicates by swearing, yet softens when we get to find out more about him, while Close’s Dr. Caldwell is woman doing what she thinks is right – justifying her actions as being for the greater good.
There was a minor controversy regarding the casting of Gemma Arterton – in the novel Miss Justineau was described as a black. However, also in the novel, Melanie is blonde with blue eyes so the filmmakers just switched the character’s ethnicities. Arterton is an excellent actress but her character was not as interesting because she was such a goodie-two-shoes in comparison to the others in her party.
The Girl With All the Gifts does not bring much new to the zombie subgenre but it should still appeal to fans and is more edgy than some other adaptations of young adult novels. Its successes includes its intriguing premise, the opening attack on the base and its character focus. However, it does slow down too much after its fast paced opening 30 minutes in.