On circumventing the redundancy of genre (or not), competence vs. inspiration, and a breakout performer with many gifts indeed
The Girl with All the Gifts Saban Films
Director: Colm McCarthy
Screenplay: Mike Carey, based on his novel
Starring: Sennia Nanua, Gemma Arterton, Glenn Close, Paddy Considine, Fisayo Akinade, Dominique Tipper and Anamaria Marinca
Rated R / 1 hour, 51 minutes / 2:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
There comes a point in the life span of any genre when there's simply no need for any excess patience. A movie is either showing you the genre in a new light or it's not. A movie either has its own voice or it doesn't. There's no time to waste on more repetition, respectable as it may be.
Colm McCarthy's The Girl with All the Gifts, adapted by Mike Carey from his own novel, is certainly a respectable enough entry in the zombie and postapocalypse genres. It's well-acted, handsomely staged, cleanly executed. But what value it ultimately has is dubious. It's a perfectly fine example of the form. I cannot emphasize enough how Perfectly Fine this movie is. But it doesn't exactly make much of a case for itself, either. Its filmmaking is not noticeably greater than an episode of The Walking Dead - although the film as a whole is noticeably less stupid than The Walking Dead, so give it credit for that much.
Almost all of McCarthy's directorial work is in British television, which sounds just about right. The film is like an episode of a basic-cable drama with a decent budget - exceedingly competent but aesthetically unremarkable.
When I say it does nothing to set itself apart, I'm not requiring it - or any other movie - to have some sort of outlandish hook or dramatic gimmick to justify itself. I'm not asking it to deconstruct the genre. The truth is, there's not much I find more comforting than a damn good genre exercise in an established template. A lean little thriller, a mean little slasher. I'm not expecting The Girl with All the Gifts to reinvent the postapocalyptic zombie wheel. But at the same time, the genre - like most genres - is saturated enough already; how much is this movie really getting out of it? If a film is not, at minimum, offering its own distinct perspective, there's little reason to spend time with it when there are so many good alternatives to choose from.
The thing is, this movie does have that one thing - one defining standout - that could have made it all worthwhile. It's the girl herself. (The one with all the gifts.) Played by newcomer Sennia Nanua, Melanie is a young girl of around 10 who spends her days in a maximum-security facility on account of she's a zombie. She's there with a handful of other kids her age, all afflicted with the same uncontrollable urges that require them to be shackled throughout the day and imprisoned by night. As mentally aware, second-generation zombies (or "hungries"), they are ideal test subjects for the team of government scientists trying to unlock an antidote or cure for what has become a global crisis.
Nanua is a real discovery, embodying the sophistication and unflappable courage of a character who stands out even among a whole facility of unique (to put it mildly) children. She is, when the scent of human flesh hits her, just as ravenous as the next, but when protective measures are taken by the humans around her (there's a masking cream that everyone applies to their exposed skin - faces, hands, arms), she proves not only far beyond her years intellectually, but naturally kind and (most importantly, to those around her) consciously docile. Most everyone refers to her as an "it," but she understands. She has come to idolize her teacher, Ms. Justineau (Gemma Arterton), who feels a similar affection for Melanie despite knowing full well what her purpose is.
Melanie makes for a great character and a great dramatic centerpiece ... at first. For the opening half-hour or so, when the story still feels urgent, contained within this mysterious fortress and protected against an outside world that is only hinted at, she's a point of fascination. For us and for the researchers, teachers and armed guards floating around the place. But once things take a turn, she's unfortunately reduced to being a plot utensil. One among many. The film settles into conventional routines, becoming yet another movie about a group of survivors roaming around an urban wasteland, perpetually on the lookout for safety, sustenance, protection, hope.
We can see certain scenes coming miles in advance. Of course a character will wind up at an abandoned store and find him- or herself surrounded by zombies. Of course one or two of our team are going to get bitten on the arm and have to be put down before they turn. Of course our heroes will find themselves surrounded by zombies and have to resourcefully maneuver their way out of trouble. Of course they will find a deserted compound complete with bed-and-bath facilities, lab equipment and computer terminals. That these scenes exist is no sin - it's that they are given no particular distinction by McCarthy, so they play more as cliches than developments.
Meanwhile, in the background there's the recurring subplot of Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close), who insists that experimenting on Melanie is the unequivocal key to her research - the key to finding the cure. This is handled clumsily and unconvincingly, not only for the cut-and-dried stakes of what Caldwell describes but the inconsistent way its implications are addressed. It sits there as a lingering issue, but whether it's a legitimate attempt to stage an ethical debate about Melanie's humanity or a simple plot mechanism ... well, that's an open question, and I don't think McCarthy and Carey satisfactorily handle it. "Both," would be the answer, I suppose - but either way, the girl has, by the time it really matters, become more prop than character.
A great central performance can go a long way, and Nanua takes The Girl with All the Gifts as far as it can go. The filmmaking can't take it the rest of the way. Its vision extends only as far as the most moderate standards of the genre.