Skip to main content

It's safe to come down. I'm not hungry now.

The Girl with All the Gifts
(2016)

(SPOILERS) Colm McCarthy directed the less-than-estimable Doctor Who story The Bells of Saint John, which memorably, in an entirely negative way, featured Matt Smith riding up a skyscraper on a motorbike. While this was in no way McCarthy’s fault, it was suggestive that he had, in some past life, horribly affronted the Fates and would be paying penance via untold degradations for many future incarnations to come. He also performed a stint on Steven Moffat’s increasingly risible Sherlock, before making an appreciable mark on the second series of Peaky Blinders. The Girl with All the Gifts is his first since that stint, and he takes to it like a director with something to prove, so much so that, for all that screenwriter Mike Carey’s spin on the zombie genre is unique and distinctive, it’s down to its director and a phenomenal junior performance from newcomer Sennia Nanua that it’s as effective as it is.


McCarthy’s subjective lens is with Nanua’s Melanie throughout, but particularly so during the opening section, in which we are introduced to the concrete underground world she inhabits with her fellow detainee children. We see them confined to cells and wheel-chaired to class in restraints, but initially have as little information on the whys and wherefores of this imprisonment as she has (less even). The scenario echoes the doomed subterranean military research facility of Day of the Dead, but rather than a crude, schlocky focus on these child “hungries” who only reduce to the instinctive state of their perma-zombie adult equivalents when roused by bloodlust, it encourages a pointed metaphor for how easy it is to rationalise seeing others as “other”, and so undeserving of our empathy and respect.


Indeed, rather than a fleeting or diverting layer of the picture, this is established as the entire point, one that is nurtured all the way through to the final scene; it is no coincidence that Helen (Gemma Arterton in possibly her best performance; it’s certainly up there with Byzantium) survives the fungal apocalypse, the only character to maintain consistent human feeling and decency towards the test subjects. Melanie is able to traverse the various worlds, unconditioned towards judgement of others but astonishingly quick on the uptake in what ought to be new and bewildering situations.


This culminates in her recognition that the price Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close) requests, through her clinician’s eyes, that Melanie sacrifice herself for the (only possible) salvation of a humanity on its last legs, is forfeit. Caldwell is appealing to a one-sided utilitarianism, crystallised for Melanie when the doctor admits that, having spent her entire time rejecting the possibility that Melanie and her ilk are sentient, she is indeed human, and she was wrong. It would have been understandable if Melanie’s decision to spurn Caldwell’s plea was solely about the “Why should we die for you?” (as in, Melanie, having endured physical hardship and verbal abuse, treated as a thing rather than a person, all the time with an eager smile on her face and an unerringly upbeat disposition).


It’s a development paralleled by the earlier scene in which she volunteers her own cell number to Caldwell, having realised the “think of a number” game is a means for the doctor to pick the next dissection subject; Melanie would sacrifice herself for a cause, but the cause would have to be just in her philosophy. The sequence also provides a basis for her developing authority; the last scene positions her as the leader incarnate of a new civilisation (not too far off from Planet of the Apes’ Caesar), bringing knowledge to the city’s feral children as Helen, from the protection of a sealed lab, provides them with the tools for taking their heritage.


Some have seen Melanie’s behaviour throughout as entirely calculated, but I think it reads on several levels. On one hand, her decision to release the spores has a childlike impulsiveness and is imbued with her penchant for storytelling, in that she seeks to protect those who have simply been nice to her in her immediate frame of reference and fairy tale narrative, without any attention to all the other humans she will turn to hungries who might also have treated her fairly given a chance; Parks and Helen will be okay, and that is enough. On the other, it isn’t a decision Helen would have made, but most certainly one Caldwell would have, situations reversed. But of course, Melanie has already shown she is a leader (with the feral kids), and leaders make tough, utilitarian choices for the good of their own.


That scene rather justifies a picture that had been losing its way during a rather generic third act. There aren’t very many places a zombie movie can go, even one with as distinctive a starting point (an insect pathogenising fungus that leaps the species barrier) and characteristics (the jabbering, lunging jaws of the infected are a persuasively unnerving conceit), since ultimately it usually comes down to being chased, torn apart, infected and chased some more (if you haven’t succumbed to during the first three elements).


While plot and character are firmly in focus, this works fine, through the breach of the complex and the flight to London, even as Melanie is let loose and returns not because she has to but because she likes them (well, Helen and Fisayo Akinade’s Private Gallagher). But there comes a point where characters are required to absent themselves of common-sense for the sake of standard horror film tropes (or, even worse, blundering; at one point Gallagher is sent to find food, and Parks lets Melanie out – to find her own food – within minutes), and you’d rather hoped by this point that McCarthy and Carey (adapting his novel) were above such things. Characters go off alone, enter impossibly tight spaces and then get set upon (and set upon again), having displayed (literally) military precision and discipline earlier. It gets so that when Parks (Paddy Considine) buys it, it’s little more than the writer finding a quick means to kill him off; it’s that ungainly.


McCarthy uses sound and imagery throughout to marvellously heightened effect, from the unnerving chanting on the soundtrack (Christobal Tapia de Veer also memorably scored Utopia) to the bewilderment of Melanie experiencing the big, bright outdoors (the cinematography comes from McCarthy’s Peaky Blinders lenser, Simon Dennis), to her blissed-out reverie upon feeding. 


The overgrown London is particularly effective (apparently partially achieved with shots of a Ukranian town deserted since Chernobyl), with readily identifiable shops, insignias and landmarks, and a Day of the Triffids vibe to the ominous seed pods (admittedly, this whole gambit, where a box of matches effectively signals the end of homo sapiens, is a little cute/too neat). It’s easy to come away with the feeling that this desolated human landscape has been justly reclaimed by the planet, well on its way to banishing all traces of civilisation and replacing them with a blanket of greenery. And there are welcome, odd touches, such as the zombie mother still pushing a pram while all around are her immobile brethren (I have to admit to failing to understand the scene of a hungry apparently feeding on his own limbs, however).


Considine, Close and Arterton deserve due praise, but Nanua’s almost preternaturally insightful and aware performance is the one to laud most; she’ll surely be at the top of Hollywood casting lists by now. I’m less certain over what McCarthy’s picture says about the current fate of the feline in movies. And I don’t mean being voiced by Kevin Spacey. With this, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Inside Llewyn Davis, the unfortunate demise of the moggy is a development you’d rather hoped wouldn’t be catching on. Like those two pictures, though, an eviscerated cat isn’t enough to diminish its positive points. The Girl with All the Gifts deserves to stand out from the ongoing glut of zombie/hungry fare. There will be inevitable comparisons to 28 Days Later, but they shouldn’t extend further than that, in both cases, the pictures lose something during the third act; this is thematically a far richer piece.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

I hate natural causes!

Body Bags (1993) (SPOILERS) I’m not surprised Showtime didn’t pick this up for an anthology series. Perhaps, if John Carpenter had made Coming Home in a Body Bag (the popular Nam movie series referenced in the same year’s True Romance ), we’d have something to talk about. Tho’ probably not, if Carpenter had retained his by this point firmly glued to his side DP Gary Kibbe, ensuring the proceedings are as flat, lifeless and unatmospheric as possible. Carpenter directed two of the segments here, Tobe Hooper the other one. It may sound absurd, given the quality of Hooper’s career, but by this point, even he was calling the shots better than Carpenter.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

Hey, my friend smells amazing!

Luca (2021) (SPOILERS) Pixar’s first gay movie ? Not according to director Enrico Cassarosa (“ This was really never in our plans. This was really about their friendship in that kind of pre-puberty world ”). Perhaps it should have been, as that might have been an excuse – any excuse is worth a shot at this point – for Luca being so insipid and bereft of spark. You know, the way Soul could at least claim it was about something deep and meaningful as a defence for being entirely lacking as a distinctive and creatively engaging story in its own right.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

I want the secret of the cards. That’s all.

The Queen of Spades (1949) (SPOILERS) Marty Scorsese’s a big fan (“ a masterpiece ”), as is John Boorman, but it was Edgar Wright on the Empire podcast with Quentin “One more movie and I’m out, honest” Tarantino who drew my attention to this Thorold Dickinson picture. The Queen of Spades has, however, undergone a renaissance over the last decade or so, hailed as a hitherto unjustly neglected classic of British cinema, one that ploughed a stylistic furrow at odds with the era’s predominant neo-realism. Ian Christie notes its relationship to the ilk of German expressionist work The Cabinet of Dr of Caligari , and it’s very true that the picture exerts a degree of mesmeric immersion rarely found in homegrown fare.