Turning the tables on the archetypal zombie movie, it’s the lead character here that harbours a taste for flesh. The titular girl with all the gifts is Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a pre-teen ‘hungry’ who exhibits enough distinctly human behaviour (smiling, talking, showing emotion and solving complex problems) to make her extremely valuable in this desolate post-infection England. The Girl With All the Gifts wears its influences on its sleeve, bearing a distinct narrative, thematic and aesthetic similarity to the 2013 videogame The Last of Us. However, there is enough fresh blood running through its veins to make this the most original zombie movie since 28 Days Later.
The Girl With All the Gifts is adapted from the 2014 book of the same name by M.R. Carey. Given the relatively close proximity to the release of the aforementioned game, any narrative similarities are purely coincidental. However, the fact that The Last of Us, a videogame, has had such a profound aesthetic influence on the film is a deeply interesting development in contemporary culture.
The beginning of The Girl With All the Gifts is delightfully cryptic. Opening in an underground military base, which evokes the claustrophobia of George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead, we first meet Melanie as she is bound arm, leg and head to a wheelchair and pushed into a classroom full of similarly incapacitated children. Despite being infected with the viral fungus (this story’s zombie plague), these kids continue to behave like normal humans – only showing their vicious side at the smell of saliva. Military scientist Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close), the film’s morally ambiguous antagonist, is fascinated with Melanie as she begins to show higher brain functions than her classmates. When the base becomes overrun with ‘hungries’, they embark on a journey of survival, alongside army sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine) and Melanie’s teacher Helen (Gemma Arterton), with whom she forms a special bond.
Visually, The Girl With All the Gifts does nothing new. The survivors struggle through empty towns and cities overgrown with vegetation. Bar a couple of significantly disturbing images, the violence and gore here is par for the course. While most of the practical effects on display are fine – nothing special – some of the zombie makeup looks particularly cheap. This is more so the case later on in the story as certain developments lead to a more grotesquely transformed kind of ‘hungry.’ There’s nothing wrong with low-budget effects in a zombie movie – indeed, this is often to be expected. However, The Girl With All the Gifts presents itself as something much more than low budget fair and, consequently, the weak aesthetic is occasionally jarring.
This a relatively minor gripe, however. The Girl With All the Gifts is driven by a refreshingly original plot that asks tough, morally affecting questions of the spectator. All of this moves a long at an expertly thought-out pace that is rapid-fire quick when it needs to be and more relaxed at all the right places; the occasional well-placed dramatic breather gives us time to get to know the characters and their motivations. The narrative details are trickle fed to us in the first and second acts of the film and we eagerly anticipate as each new piece of information is revealed; the world-building here is of a cryptic sort but works perfectly in its gradual delivery. Consequently, The Girl With All the Gifts is at its best in the narrative tensions of its opening act and the nail-biting drama at its centre. Unfortunately, then, the film falters in its later stages. Some significant leaps in the narrative logic leave us feeling a little detached, confused even, at the film’s end and the lower-budget feeling of these later stages somewhat counters the expertly crafted aesthetic of the film’s opening segments.
Overall, despite these third-act missteps, The Girl With All the Gifts is a well-paced, emotionally driven zombie movie experience. Although undermined by some less than fantastic dialogue, the acting here is great. Close stands out and Considine expertly balances aggression and emotion in the role of Sgt. Parks. Brought down only by an occasionally bland aesthetic and some narrative indiscretion, this should rank up there with the best horror of 2016.