The Girl with All the Gifts
A scientist and a teacher living in a dystopian future embark on a journey of survival with a special young girl named Melanie.
I would be interested in reading the novel. Generally the basis for these feature films is a better journey than the adaptation. And unfortunately, I would have wager that this is the case for The Girl with All the Gifts. While the film has several worthwhile and engaging elements, it’s not a good film overall.
And being a connoisseur and lover of zombie films and their close cousins, I had very high hopes for this piece. Imagine my disappointment when it didn’t quite work.
A number of years ago, an epidemic swept the world. A fungal infection which directly affects the human brain has spread far and wide, turning its victims into flesh-eating and conscienceless monsters. An underground lab run by Dr. Caroline Caldwell (six-time Oscar nominated actress Glenn Close) desperately searches for an antidote to this devastating illness. Her test subjects are a special group of infected young people (pre-teen boys and girls) who may hold the key to a cure. Among the group is an extra special girl named Melanie (a debut feature film performance from Sennia Nanua) whose capability to learn far exceeds that of her classmates. The children are taught by a sympathetic teacher and member of the military – Helen Justineau (Quantum of Solace’s Gemma Arterton). When the military base falls to the infected, a journey begins with a small group of survivors – intent on getting the information and potential cure within Melanie – to London and possible safety.
The zombie (for the purists – the “infected”) makeup and the splatter effects are very well done. The zombie movements and characteristics are lifted from the mannerisms of both the creatures in 28 Days Later (those creatures are what my older brother would term “turbo zombies”) and World War Z. What I found most intriguing about the zombies – when they are in a standstill – is that I was reminded of the flesh-eaters of Lucio Fulci’s classic Zombie. It was a nice bit of nostalgia – whether intended or not.
Most of the visual effects – particularly a devastated London complete with shrubbery and trees reclaiming the vast city – were well done. There were a few which stood out to me as not quite right and therefore semi-amateurish, but overall, I was sold.
The film could have been an automatic classic if it has held onto the early and mysterious promise of the underground bunker/classroom and the goings-on in such a place. But once it leaves the military base (following a very tense and exciting zombie siege), things begin to fall apart. It’s odd that with a much smaller group of survivors for the audience to focus on, that there is suddenly less overall sympathy or fear for the characters.
Taking cues from last year’s dreadful Cell (the creatures move like a flock of birds – with an almost Borg-like inner communication) and 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (there are no “pod people”, but the massive seeds and possible spread of the fungus made me think of this), the film calls out to plenty of previous films of this ilk (the aforementioned 28 Days Later).
I had a special affinity for the film’s score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer. It was perfectly suited for all of the tense moments within the film, but equally as otherworldly and sort of… psychedelic during many of Melanie’s big moments. I’d be curious to know what instruments and techniques were used to create these very weird and deeply effective music cues. Nice work here.
The explanation (via a beautifully edited and intercut monologue from Dr. Caldwell) to Melanie, about where she came from is genuinely haunting and of course, perfectly delivered by Close. If anything sticks with you from the film, it’ll be this most quiet and heavy sequence. No spoilers, but you’ll know it when you see it.
Speaking of Close, she’s just what you’d expect (and a true “get” for a genre film – I mean, Glenn Close in a zombie film?) and even in what you’d consider throw-away moments (her painful authenticity when Dr. Caldwell cleans out a cut on her hand with peroxide) she shines. There’s nothing that this woman can’t do, and now she can add true horror (relax, I would consider Fatal Attraction a thriller) to her resume.
Other performances from Arterton and from Paddy Considine (Hot Fuzz and The World’s End) as Sergeant Parks – are all pretty good, but there’s not a lot required of them. They’re pros, so what they bring to the table works.
The big question mark here has to do with the child chosen to play Melanie – Sennia Nanua. The entire film rests on her small shoulders, and so if her performance doesn’t quite make it, you’ll find yourself feeling short-changed. In the film’s first third, as Melanie establishes her brilliant mind, you’ll immediately adore her kindness and almost brown-nosing of her teacher and the rapport with the soldiers who always have a gun to her head. Her best moment comes when she is asked to write and recite a story for her teacher. She’s so far ahead of the other children and so desperate for her teacher’s approval, you’ll start to fall in love. You’ll find yourself rooting for her, but when she leaves the classroom, some of Nanua’s acting-work starts to fall flat. It seems she’s better when surrounded by the adult veteran actors to support her. But if she is meant to command the screen on her own, she isn’t able to do so. Notably in her first interactions with the feral children in London, and in what is supposed to be her moments of dominating them, I had to shake my head. It didn’t work.
On that note, the inevitable introduction (based on Close’s earlier explanation of Melanie’s origins) of these Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome-type tykes didn’t work at all. It was a group meeting of children who were either bad actors or directed poorly. On top of that, they weren’t at all scary. It seemed to me to be some sort of fan-club of Land of the Lost’s Chaka – all of the children taking cues from little Clint Howard’s child-animal creature. And this was a big spot of less-than acting for Nanua. Her unimpressive and forced growling to command/frighten the other children completely removed me from the world of the film.
My favorite moment in the film (aside from Melanie’s origin explanation) happens just as the base is compromised and Dr. Caldwell’s office is being shuttered for protection. Watch the background and you’ll be terrified by this brief but masterful bit of suspense.
The film is just too long and fails to engage past the first 45 minutes. And as I said above – this failure hurts me. The film takes its time to introduce so much greatness in the beginning and then it all falls apart.
It lands pretty squarely into average territory (okay, a bit more since I’m giving it a solid 3 out of 5). It’s nowhere near the kiss of death, but falls far short of perfection. With some very tense moments, decent performances and a powerfully unique score, the film also has pacing and length issues as well as a wishy-washy lead performance.
It was nominated for a BAFTA for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer.
The Girl with All the Gifts is scheduled for release on February 24th, 2017.