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

You know, I think you may have the delusion you’re still a police officer.

Heaven’s Prisoners (1996) (SPOILERS) At the time, it seemed Alec Baldwin was struggling desperately to find suitable star vehicles, and the public were having none of it. Such that, come 1997, he was playing second fiddle to Anthony Hopkins and Bruce Willis, and in no time at all had segued to the beefy supporting player we now know so well from numerous indistinguishable roles. That, and inane SNL appearances. But there was a window, post- being replaced by Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan, when he still had sufficient cachet to secure a series of bids for bona fide leading man status. Heaven’s Prisoners is the final such and probably the most interesting, even if it’s somewhat hobbled by having too much, rather than too little, story.

They wanted me back for a reason. I need to find out why.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) (SPOILERS) I wasn’t completely down on Joss Whedon’s Justice League (I had to check to remind myself Snyder retained the director credit), which may be partly why I’m not completely high on Zack Snyder’s. This gargantuan four-hour re-envisioning of Snyder’s original vision is aesthetically of a piece, which means its mercifully absent the jarring clash of Whedon’s sensibility with the Snyderverse’s grimdark. But it also means it doubles down on much that makes Snyder such an acquired taste, particularly when he has story input. The positive here is that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the luxury of telling the undiluted, uncondensed story Snyder wanted to tell. The negative here is also that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the luxury of telling the undiluted, uncondensed story Snyder wanted to tell (with some extra sprinkles on top). This is not a Watchmen , where the unexpurgated version was for the most part a feast.

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016) (SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

Oh, I love funny exiting lines.

Alfred Hitchcock  Ranked: 26-1 The master's top tier ranked from worst to best. You can find 52-27 here .

Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody loves a tax inspector. They’re beyond the pale!

Too Many Crooks (1959) (SPOILERS) The sixth of seven collaborations between producer-director Mario Zampi and writer Michael Pertwee, Too Many Crooks scores with a premise later utilised to big box-office effect in Ruthless People (1986). A gang of inept thieves kidnap the wife of absolute cad and bounder Billy Gordon (Terry-Thomas). Unfortunately for them, Gordon, being an absolute cad and bounder, sees it as a golden opportunity, rather enjoying his extra-marital carry ons and keeping all his cash from her, so he refuses to pay up. At which point Lucy Gordon (Brenda De Banzie) takes charge of the criminal crew and turns the tables.

Well, it must be terribly secret, because I wasn't even aware I was a member.

The Brotherhood of the Bell (1970) (SPOILERS) No, not Joseph P Farrell’s book about the Nazi secret weapons project, but rather a first-rate TV movie in the secret-society ilk of later flicks The Skulls and The Star Chamber . Only less flashy and more cogent. Glenn Ford’s professor discovers the club he joined 22 years earlier is altogether more hardcore than he could have ever imagined – not some student lark – when they call on the services he pledged. David Karp’s adaptation of his novel, The Brotherhood of the Bell is so smart in its twists and turns of plausible deniability, you’d almost believe he had insider knowledge.

What do you want me to do? Call America and tell them I changed my mind?

  Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021) (SPOILERS) The demolition – at very least as a ratings/box office powerhouse – of the superhero genre now appears to be taking effect. If so, Martin Scorsese will at least be pleased. The studios that count – Disney and Warner Bros – are all aboard the woke train, such that past yardsticks like focus groups are spurned in favour of the forward momentum of agendas from above (so falling in step with the broader media initiative). The most obvious, some might say banal, evidence of this is the repurposing of established characters in race or gender terms.

Now all we’ve got to do is die.

Without Remorse (2021) (SPOILERS) Without Remorse is an apt description of the unapologetic manner in which Amazon/Paramount have perpetrated this crime upon any audiences foolish enough to think there was any juice left in the Tom Clancy engine. There certainly shouldn’t have been, not after every attempt was made to run it dry in The Sum of All Our Fears and then the stupidly titled Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit . A solo movie of sometime Ryan chum John Clark’s exploits has been mooted awhile now, and two more inimitable incarnations were previously encountered in the forms of Willem Dafoe and Liev Schreiber. Like Chris Pine in Shadow Recruit , however, diminishing returns find Michael B Jordan receiving the short straw and lead one to the conclusion that, if Jordan is indeed a “star”, he’s having a hell of a job proving it.

I don't think this is the lightning you're looking for.

Meet Joe Black (1998) (SPOILERS) A much-maligned Brad Pitt fest, commonly accused of being interminable, ponderous, self-important and ridiculous. All of those charges may be valid, to a greater or lesser extent, but Meet Joe Black also manages to attain a certain splendour, in spite of its more wayward impulses. While it’s suggestive of a filmmaker – Martin Brest – believing his own hype after the awards success of (the middling) Scent of a Woman , this is a case where all that sumptuous better-half styling and fantasy lifestyle does succeed in achieving a degree of resonance. An undeniably indulgent movie, it’s one I’ve always had a soft spot for.

I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you got yourself killed.

Bloodshot (2020) (SPOILERS) If the trailer for Bloodshot gave the impression it had some meagre potential, that’s probably because it revealed the entire plot of a movie clearly intended to unveil itself in measured and judicious fashion. It isn’t far from the halfway mark that the truth about the situation Vin Diesel’s Ray Garrison faces is revealed, which is about forty-one minutes later than in the trailer. More frustratingly, while themes of perception of reality, memory and identity are much-ploughed cinematic furrows, they’re evergreens if dealt with smartly. Bloodshot quickly squanders them. But then, this is, after all, a Vin Diesel vehicle.