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

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979)
Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

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.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991)
(SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…