The zombie genre has undergone a metamorphosis or two over the years. From Romero’s seminal Night of the living dead, and the succession of thought-provoking sequels that it spawned, to the grisly, elongated soap opera of AMC’s The Walking Dead and its various spin-offs, right through to the re-imagined ‘crazed’ warp-speed zombies of the 28 Days Later franchise. Each of these well known offerings – and pretty much everything in-between for that matter – whilst differing stylistically, essentially all tell the same story of man’s struggle against the undead in the ultimate game of survival.
It must be a tough task to bring something new to the zombie table with most avenues seemingly explored and exhausted by now, but The girl with all the gifts (TGWATG) – Colm McCarthy’s adaptation of Mike Carey’s book and screenplay of the same name – is an attempt to do just that with a slightly different take on things.
A predominantly military set of survivors are holed-up in a secure base. Here, their collective mission is quite simple: attempt to create a vaccine in order to combat the fungal illness that has afflicted the brains of the population, turning society into a land of flesh-eating ‘hungries’.
Glen Close (Dr. Caroline Caldwell), is convinced that she is just days away from finalising an effective vaccine through her work harvesting what she needs from a selection of subjects. These subjects happen to be children, and not only that, but children who possess an innate partial immunity to the illness. These are the second generation of the infected. Born to infected parents, they exhibit all the traits of normal children, until provoked that is, be that through hunger or ‘the wrong’ external stimuli.
For everybody’s safety they are therefore kept in underground cells, released daily only to attend their schooling, and even then, only once securely restrained; strapped into wheelchairs, at gunpoint.
Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), is the children’s teacher and very obviously the only person to treat them with anything approaching a level of human kindness. To the others they are functional pawns in a necessary game of survival.
One girl in particular, Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a highly intelligent and valuable ‘asset’ to the camp, forms a particularly strong bond with Helen, but when the base’s defences are finally breached by the sheer weight of hungries at the perimeter fence, a sequence of quick-fire circumstances leads to Melanie being whisked away from the compound in an armoured vehicle, accompanied by Helen, Dr. Caldwell, Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine), and a couple of other members of the military.
Alive but shaken, they must all now fend for themselves on the outside.
Much like many a zombie film, the group will need to navigate the extraordinarily dangerous challenges that exist outside the safety of their previous home, but unlike many of its contemporaries, TGWATG conjures up a scenario in which the group must contend with the level of unknowns that Melanie’s presence offers. A necessary evil, if you like. Disabled from biting by strapping a perspex mask to her face, it’s no longer a case of what danger Melanie represents, but more a case of what use she can be to aid them in their quest.
McCarthy’s film is one which produces a number of interesting observations. The importance of having respect and empathy for both those we know and understand, as well as for those that perhaps we don’t. The advantages of developing symbiotic relationships in order to maximise our chances of survival, and then, perhaps most importantly of all, in light of a new, more advanced second generation of the infected, the question is posed: Is it more important for ‘man’ to preserve his way of life at all costs, or is man’s life in fact worth no more than this new domineering force of the land that has now arisen – the hungries.
It’s a good set up, and a story that has substance and forces the viewer to think in ways that perhaps one wouldn’t expect to do when dealing with this particular subject matter. On that basis alone, TGWATG deserves a lot of credit.
Disappointingly though, it’s a film that, on balance, struggles to deliver an end product worthy of the book’s innovative concepts.
For a book that centres so crucially upon the role of children in this harsh new world, it’s a little surprising therefore that it’s actually once TGWATG introduces scenes in its latter stages containing any number of feral, conniving youths – think Lord of the Flies meets the cast from Oliver – and indeed once Melanie really takes centre stage and begins to exert her influence on proceedings, that the film noticeably loses impact, and all levels of tension and foreboding that have been carefully-nurtured up until this point, quickly dissipate.
And then there’s that ending. As absurd as it is clever. An accomplishment that I imagine wasn’t actually McCarthy’s intention. See for yourselves. Make up your own minds. In all honesty, I still can’t decide.
It all leaves a bit of a sour taste in the mouth. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the performances that you can put your finger on. The effects are convincing enough and it’s hard to think of anything that leaps out at you as being overly-naff or in any way contrived. I suppose the kindest way to look at it is that TGWATG is just simply a film that runs out of puff. It fails to sustain that crucial level of intensity and credibility for that matter, and exhibits too many awkward moments of clunkiness as it limps unconvincingly towards its rather ambivalence-inducing conclusion.