Saturday, October 20, 2018

31 Days of Horror 2018: The Girl with All the Gifts

Directed by Colm McCarthy.

2016. Rated R, 111 minutes.
Sennia Nanua
Gemma Arterton
Paddy Considine
Glenn Close
Anamaria Marinca
Dominique Tipper
Fisayo Akinade
Anthony Welsh

The zombie apocalypse has already happened. Normally, that means we focus on some poor, still human soul, or souls, who wake up or venture outside their door to find this to be the case. We then follow this person (or people) as they try to make it to some designated safety zone protected by the military of whatever country the movie takes place in. In a nice reversal, The Girl with All the Gifts starts off behind the walls of one of these areas. This particular one is set up as a prison/school. The inmates/students are all child zombies. On a daily basis, they are restrained, pulled from their cells, and taken to a classroom where they remain bound to their chairs. There, they receive an education much like any human child would from their teacher, Helen (Arterton). You see, these kids are hybrids who still maintain the capacity to think and learn, but are driven into a flesh-craving frenzy by the smell of even a single drop of blood. This place is run by Sgt. Parks (Considine), but the one everyone is afraid of on both sides is Dr. Caldwell (Close). She performs experiments on the children and views them as interchangeable subjects. We know that they’re all different. None of them is more different than star student, Melanie (Nanua).

This setup makes the opening act of The Girl with All the Gifts one of the most intriguing acts I’ve ever seen in a zombie flick. It comes at it from the opposite end of the spectrum, in terms of perspective. With this new vantage point, we almost immediately find ourselves feeling sympathy for the creatures. We detest the mad scientist, Dr. Caldwell, thanks to yet another fantastic performance by Glen Close in which she reminds us that she is the iconic Cruella DeVille without being as over the top as that. All of this is enabled by Sennia Nanua’s work as Melanie. Her and her character’s self-assured and downright plucky attitude is a breath of fresh air in a genre filled with similarly afflicted characters who behave frantically and dread their own existence. As the film wears on, Melanie’s understanding what she is grows. However, she is far more inquisitive and cautious about it than she is afraid.

A big action scene happens when the outside “hungries,” as this movie calls traditional mindless zombies, make their way into the fort. The main characters, plus a few minor ones, escape and have to try making their way to another “safe” place. It becomes an episode of The Walking Dead, complete with characters barking at one another as they figure out what to do next. The film tries ratcheting up the tension, but the story becomes too predictable and the action isn’t dynamic enough to turn that trick. It’s only somewhat interesting because of the way Melanie is used as a blanket of protection for the humans. However, it’s not more interesting for the same reason. We never get the sense she’s really in danger. She’s constantly the superhero swooping in to save the day.

Melanie is also problematic in ways that lie just beneath the surface, but clearly reinforce some negative tropes. She is nothing, if not a “Magical Negro.” She’s the lone black character of consequence, has special abilities no one else has, and uses them exclusively to defend and enable the film’s white characters. Let’s not forget she is the prisoner of these people. Her actions thus mark her as also a contented slave. Even when she has the opportunity to claim her freedom, she opts to stand by the side of her oppressors because she believes they’ve been better to her than she could possibly be to herself. After all, she might transform into a feral beast at any moment. In case you forget, there are a number of scenes of her being muzzled and unmuzzled, based on the needs of the plot. History makes this an upsetting sight. As if all this weren’t enough, we’re left with Gemma Arterton’s Helen squarely in the white savior role. She’s going to indoctrinate these savages in the ways of white culture come hell or high water. It’s true that most of the zombies aren’t black, or any other recognizable minority. However, with Melanie being the only one we focus on, the metaphor crystallizes.

Despite all I’ve said, The Girl with All the Gifts isn’t a movie to automatically chuck in the trash. It’s very well made and exceptionally acted for the genre. It also looks at the zombie apocalypse from a different angle. Because of these things, there’s the possibility you’ll get something totally different out of it. For me, the first act shows far more potential than what the rest of the movie delivers. What it does deliver is quite troublesome.


  1. I wanted to get this film to watch as they had a copy of it at my local library but someone already checked it out. Oh well, I'll try again another time.

    1. I'm sure you'll be able to get a hold of it, soon.

  2. I see where you get your conclusion. The "white savior" plotline does get subverted a bit in the third act. I won't provide spoilers, but I think that's an argument I can make.

    As for Melanie's gifts, I honestly saw this as more pro-feminist than anything else. I see your argument and can't entirely disagree, but I genuinely don't think that was the intent.

    1. Not sure of the film's intent, but only how it struck me. I can see a pro-feminist angle, as well. One thing's for sure, there's lots to interpret.

  3. You bring up an interesting perspective on the "magical negro" trope. I read the book first, and Melanie was white and the teacher was black, so I never picked up on any of those stereotypes watching the movie because I never considered them in the book.

    I liked this overall, and one thing it did really well was condense the book into a decent run time.

    1. Haven't read the book, so I don't have that perspective. Reversing the races would certainly change things, though.

  4. Yuck, yuck....I. Just not into zombies and eati;g people