A proverbial 'good zombie movie' that, had it come out 20 years ago, might have been considered a great one. Unfortunately other fictions have got there first: 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead, World War Z (book and film) and, most notably for those who have experienced it, the PS3 survival masterpiece The Last of Us, which has virtually the same story. Though familiarity alone, The Girl with all the Gifts is therefore rendered slightly toothless where once it might have had considerable bite.
Taking place after an unseen zombie apocalypse has decimated Britain, the film deals with a military science project to engineer a cure using prenatally infected children; one of which (the unusually smart Melanie) might just hold the key to unlocking the vaccine. After their base is overrun by zombies (in this world named ‘Hungries’ for some reason), Melanie is whisked away with a unit of soldiers and three main characters all with differing agendas; kindly Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) who sees the humanity in Melanie and wants to protect her; single-minded Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close) who wants to dissect her for the greater good; and no-nonsense squaddie Sgt. Parks (Paddy Considine) who just wants to reach his base.
Rather than develop those characters or examine their moral struggle, the story focuses its energy almost exclusively on Melanie (Sennia Nanua). It’s a heavy burden but Nanua acquits herself admirably and is thoroughly likeable. The problem is her character- the emotional core of the film- is strangely unemotional. While she plays her like a regular polite schoolgirl (albeit one that eats animals alive), the film shows her to be self aware and capable of empathy. Yet we see no emotional toll on her. There are even moments that ought to be shocking that are played, somewhat distastefully, for laughs. Tonally, it doesn’t quite hit the right note to become a genuinely affecting ride.
Adapting M.R. Carey’s recent novel of the same name, director Colm McCarthy does a fairly effective job of conveying both the beauty and danger of this post-apocalyptic Britain. Beautiful cinematography by Simon Dennis and a very striking score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer elevate the material; but it can’t completely mask a somewhat routine tale. The imagery of a London returned to nature is hauntingly impressive, but again, if you've played The Last of Us you've already seen that. Both game and film also draw inspiration from the real-life Cordyceps virus; a grisly fungal infection that affects insects. Despite its best efforts though, ‘Gifts just can't match that work for it’s subtlety, nuance, tragedy, atmosphere, shocks or character development (although in fairness, The Last of Us had 15 hours of gameplay to develop its story and characters).
A vaguely nihilistic climax gives way to a somewhat goofy epilogue that may or may not work depending on your viewpoint. While it could conceivably lead to a sequel, the possibility isn’t one that necessarily excites and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that The Girl With All the Gifts is a thoughtful, competent, yet ever-so-slightly redundant contribution to it’s genre.