We have seen countless post-apocalyptic films and even more films that feature some type of zombie/undead/infected/whatever. If a filmmaking team is going to go into this well tread genre they need to have something that sets them apart from the pack (or is it “hoard” here?). The Girl With All The Gifts may feature some of the same tropes as the undead films that have come before, but it is ultimately successful due to its commitment to character over action.
Directed by Colm McCarthy, The Girl With All The Gifts follows the character of Melanie as she is locked in a prison beneath the ground. She splits her time between solitary confinement and school sessions, the only thing different about these classrooms is that all of the children are restrained in their chairs and armed soldiers escort them from their rooms to the classroom. I was able to go into this movie completely blind and it was a wonderful experience, with that in mind I don’t want to give too many plot details here as it may spoil the mysterious journey the film takes you on.
We are immediately drawn to Melanie as a main character. She is wonderfully played by Sennia Nanua, a young actress who is sure to have a future in this career. Melanie is a sweet girl who displays great manners, so the hostile treatment she receives from the guards makes for a great jumping point for this intriguing story. Glenn Close and Gemma Arterton play the doctor and teacher that spend the most time interacting with Melanie and the other children; both of them do a great job fleshing out these layered women who are making the best of a horrible situation (i.e. an impending zombie apocalypse).
Again, no spoilers here, but the plot does take our group of characters to the outside world. It is here where McCarthy and screenwriter Mike Carey (who adapted his own book of the same name) solidify The Girl With All The Gifts as a great film. Yes, there is some standard action scenes we have seen before in these type of movies, and it’s fine I guess. But the bulk of the film is with a small group of characters and we interact with this strange world from their point of view. The main concept at play here is whether or not it is ok to experiment on these kids if it means a cure is possible. We have a doctor, a teacher (who cares for the kids), a soldier, and the child herself all interacting with each other and we as audience get to ponder this question with them.
After honing his craft by directing episodes of British television (Doctor Who, Peaky Blinders, Sherlock), McCarthy’s direction is solid here. The production design team have created a really interesting world, and McCarthy’s framing makes exploring this world truly cinematic. I was reminded of 2010’s Monsters while watching this, in that we are seeing a new director wow us with what looks like big budget effects, when in reality they are just being efficient with their $5 million budget.
While some of the action and concepts at play here have been seen before, The Girl With All The Gifts wins the benefit of the doubt thanks to its great cast and more focused plot. The story goes to places I was not expecting and when the credits were rolling I found myself sitting there just pondering the big ideas the film had introduced. This is what makes for good sci-fi. Yes, there are soldiers and zombies and a post-apocalyptic world, but it is the characters and smart ideas that make for a great film.