Coming-of-age, dystopic sci-fi zombie horror thrillers aren’t exactly a dime a dozen. That’s what’s insanely catchy about Director Colm McCarthy’s THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS. Imagine if CHILDREN OF MEN met 28 DAYS LATER. That only partially begins to describe this movie. Based on Mike Carey’s novel of the same name, the film – also adapted by Carey – is a semi-clever, moderately entertaining genre smash-up. Though it does get a little crippled by logic and flat out goofy in spots, what’s there is a terrifically thrilling ride.
Pre-teen Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is one of many kids housed in a cement bunker on a remote British military base. However, she’s unlike any of the other kids there. She’s special. Every day, after she puts on her standard-issue burnt sienna sweats, she’s secured tightly into a wheelchair and taken to school run by her favorite teacher Ms. Justineau (Gemma Arterton). In this bleak dystopia, Ms. Justineau sees hope for a better future within Melanie. Melanie’s elevated thinking and inquisitive mind also draw the attention of Dr. Christine Caldwell (Glenn Close) and Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine).They too recognize something in her – her disease. You see, Melanie is a hybrid, meaning she’s half human, half flesh-eating zombie, or “hungry” as they say. A virus has spread throughout the planet – one Dr. Caldwell seeks to eradicate by concocting a vaccine using the genetic code of these hybrids. But as they get close to finding a cure, a pack of hungries destroys the base, sending the adult squad and Melanie on the run.
Carey and McCarthy’s first act is virtually flawless. It’s everything you’d ever want to see in a film like this: gripping, visceral, energetic, scary, bruising, and bloody. It earns all of its emotions with well-drawn, rich characters and nary a drop of exposition. However, once the tale leaves the base is where things get befuddling. For as many highly intelligent people that escape in the armored vehicle, they sure do make countless stupid mistakes – doing things their training would have prepared them to handle. “Because reasons,” seems to be the prevailing answer to most of the questions that arise. Why do they stop the truck in the forest versus driving through to London? You’d think a sticker that read “Will stop for convoluted reasons” was slapped on the bumper. And once they are separated from their vehicle, things slowly roll further downhill. For every heart-stopping scene like the one where they walk through a minefield of sleeping hungries, there’s a silly one like the one with Melanie dominating the roaming pack of feral lil’ hungries. That scene is strictly there to be demonstrative of Melanie’s brains and brawn – and that she’s blossoming in the real world. It’s about as subtle as a jackhammer, reinforcing what we already knew about her. Plus, there’s one too many instances where people leave the solar mobile lab when they really shouldn’t, which puts them into predictable danger.
Despite narrative hiccups, what really sucks the audience in are the performances from the ensemble. While it’s no surprise Arterton and Considine are fantastic, this is quite possibly Close’s best role since DAMAGES and ALBERT NOBBS. Plus Nanua is a genuine movie-star. I hope Hollywood will be able to write a multitude of dynamic roles for her in the future. This girl has the true gift of talent, charisma and a loveable maturity. Cinematographer Simon Dennis’ dank, murky visual palette accentuates the bleak monotony of the dystopian society. And composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s score is unsettling in the best of ways as a buzzing hive and layered chanting put us into a pliable meditative state for the creeps.
Though GIRL may not totally fulfill its promises to the audience as a game changer, it marks an audacious feature film debut from one of your new favorite actresses under twenty.
3.5 out of 5
THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS played Beyond Fest on October 11. It’s available on DirecTV January 26th and in select theaters and On Demand February 24th.