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Review – ‘The Girl With All the Gifts’ Breathes New Life Into the Living and the Dead

By  · Published on September 27th, 2016

‘The Girl With All the Gifts’ Breathes New Life Into Both the Living and the Dead

A new-school zombie film about the dangers of a good education.

Ah, the zombie movie. Like films employing the found footage format there are simply too many damn zombie movies and too few that are worth a damn. The issue is less the undead than the sad fact that far too many zombie films fail to find a fresh, exciting angle or to even do the bare minimum all that well. There are exceptions though, and the latest to deliver thrills with an original voice is The Girl With All the Gifts.

Colm McCarthy’s (Outcast) second feature film is an adaptation of Mike Cary’s best-selling novel and tells the tale about a post-apocalyptic UK and the little girl who just be the world’s only hope of survival. It’s a refreshing spin on the familiar that feels at one with the world of 28 Days Later while still plotting its own path in character and emotional weight.

Deep in the bowels of a remote military base sit hallways lined with cells, and within those confines sit children. Each morning they’re strapped securely into wheelchairs and brought to a makeshift classroom by nervous soldiers where they’re taught miscellaneous lessons by a kind woman named Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton). The base doctor, Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close), has little interest in teaching them and instead hopes only to learn from their dissected tissues why they’re unlike the zombies above. A virus has spread throughout the population turning people into mindless killing machines with each bite promising to infect the bitten. Those born already infected have that same desire to eat flesh, but they’ve also kept their faculties exhibiting a capacity for knowledge, reasoning, and in one girl’s case, empathy with the world around her.

Melanie (Sennia Nanua, with a highly memorable performance in her feature debut) cares about those around her, especially Miss Justineau. The feeling’s mutual, and when the base falls the pair are forced to look out for each other against threats both human and otherwise.

The Girl With All the Gifts delivers solid zombie thrills both horrific and action-oriented, but the heart and soul of the film is Melanie. She’s one of the infected, but it’s through her that we come to appreciate and experience the world. The character is engaging on the page, but Nanua gives her a wide-eyed presence that suggests both innocence and wisdom – a sequence seeing her play for the first time with real-world objects is both humorous and sweet. Melanie is Day of the Dead’s Bub after a proper education, but the threat within her is always present just beneath the surface. She learns from those around her, for better and worse, and as her awareness grows so does the scope of the film.

Justineau and Caldwell are far more familiar creations, both necessary in their own way but with character arcs we expect. More flexible are the soldiers along for the ride including Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine). Their view on the children is as nothing more than dangerous science projects, but interactions with Melanie serve to shift that impression in interesting ways. Considine in particular becomes the film’s next most engaging performer through a visible progression of thought, reasoning, and reaction.

This is very much a sibling of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (and its subsequent sequel) as the starkly colored world contains immediate and visceral threats in the form of fast-moving, homicidal munchers. Their appearances lend feelings of suspense, terror, and loneliness to much of the film, but a story turn in the third act damages that tension beyond repair. You’ll know it when you see it, but suddenly what was frightening becomes silly, and it deflates the film in dramatic ways.

A different story turn though, again one I won’t detail, balances out that loss of one dramatic element by creating another. It gives the film a philosophical bent as it challenges characters and viewers to see things from a different perspective than the simple necessity of human survival, and it’s presented with some creative, awe-filled visuals. There’s more at stake, and the film – script, direction, production design, and performances – works to make us care.

Third-act goofiness aside, The Girl With All the Gifts is rarely less than an engaging experience. Early scenes at the bunker invoke feelings of cold fear and confinement while later scenes shift things to a more earthy locale through cinematography and visual design. It’s a world all of the characters believe in, and it’s a world none of them want to say goodbye to.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.