THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS
Vampire films may be fun, they have style and romance, but zombie films are more important. Vampire films are undermined by a logic that accepts an incredibly bashful apocalypse. There are exceptions but most of the time in vampire movies the infection is limited to the fiancée, the family and a few mates. In a vampire movie the world does not change, not even in the American TV series True Blood, which was more bold than most. In that show the news is different and people use alternative drugs but they drive the same cars and have jobs that we recognise from our own world. Zombie films insist on total wreckage and consider possible futures. In a world where our cultural inheritance appears to consist of mainly recycled legacy anything that anticipates something different from how we live and survive has to be valued. The Girl With All The Gifts is a fine film and unlike any other zombie movie although there are the familiar moments that focus on the usual survival, search and flight. These elements are not routine but they do slow the film down. At least the zombies make the heroes nervous and anxious. No one tries for Walking Dead cool in The Girl With All The Gifts. Fortunately, the film is more than a traipse through the end of the world. It has plenty of bold ideas, some genuine surprises and enough random attacks from brain eaters to satisfy fans of the genre.
The twist this time is that there is a second generation of zombies and both the first and second-generations have been created by a fungal infection. For those who are curious imagine George A Romero meets The Day Of The Triffids. The emergence of second-generation zombies is a disturbing idea, and Glenn Close, who plays the curious scientist, is good and grim when she explains the horror of their birth. We listen to a female scientist describe an event that has tarnished her spirit. Near the beginning of the film the zombies attack a military base. There appears to be a cultural split between British and American zombie movies. The response in Britain to a zombie crisis is to devise a military strategy and put the Army on the streets. The Americans rely on non-conformist individualists. Put another way the British remember the Second World War and the Americans think of John Wayne. I know; my thinking is crude and unfair.
If there are plenty of ideas in The Girl With All The Gifts, the title and the reference at the beginning of the film to Pandora and the box she opened signals that this zombie movie will eventually examine the story of the Creation. In the original myth the box was meant to explain why there was evil in the world. In The Girl With All The Gifts the myth is used to explain suffering, dismal fate and heavy handed unfairness. Or why the Creation did not have quite the happy ending some people might have expected. The final line in the film is that ‘we have plenty of time.’ The Creator has infinite time, and there is enough in the Universe to ensure that something will last forever. He or She is all right, and there may even be a smile on His or Her face. The rest of us are not so lucky. Our brief spans of existence are the price that has to be paid for the appetites and curiosity of the Creator. He or She prevails. We do not. Although The Girl With All The Gifts explores the Creationist theme it is never doctrinaire. There is enough to satisfy both the Archbishop of Canterbury and Richard Dawkins. There will be a few self-important humans, though, that might take offence.
Nothing puts the human race in its place as well as The Girl With All The Gifts. For once a member of another species approaches a human being and asks ‘Why should it be that we die for you?’ The penultimate scene in the film heralds a different world. It is both profound and moving. Paddy Considine plays the soldier who has to witness what happens. As acting challenges go this must be as big as it gets. We all have an idea of what has been seen through the giant telescopes, and the beginning of a new world is not something that happens every day. Considine is a fine actor and he does more than okay.
The film is dominated by a handful of key players. These represent the human need to educate and nurture, to discover and to defend and protect. These professions or disciplines have always been important in shaping the future. Gemma Arterton plays the teacher, Glenn Close is the scientist and Considine represents the military. All are fine. Arterton abandons the glamour that was used so effectively in Tamara Drewe. The camera emphasises her exceptional height, and she wears baggy clothes and is makeup free. Glenn Close is the scientist dedicated to discovering an antidote. She has a military haircut and uniform and is also glamour free. Considine looks like we would expect him to. He has the ability to shout orders at people and sigh when confronted with cosmic developments. The child actor Sennia Nanua plays Melanie, the girl who represents the future. Her thespian challenges exceed even those of Considine. She deserves praise for surviving a difficult task and is entitled to a rewarding future as an actor. But the description of her as surviving is deliberate. The film makes huge demands on a young actor.
The relationship between the teacher and the young girl adds interest to a film that is not short of ideas. There is kinship between the two but because of the virus they are obliged to remain physically distant. Grief and loss dominate zombie movies but unrequited affection or love across the species is unusual. The early scenes also make us wonder about our responsibility to difficult children. Glenn Close appears to be caught between her purpose as a scientist and her responsibility to the military and authority. Her identity is split between masculine ambition and feminine responsibility. This is a good concept but the use of genders as reference points feels a little sexist. The actions of Close oblige us to rethink the myth of Pandora. Scientists both close and open the box and sometimes simultaneously, and, as the end of the film suggests, there may be more than one box. There was no big bang explosion in the box of Pandora. We should not be critical of Greek myth makers. Their telescopes were on the small side.
There are a couple of dubious moments. The interest that the zombies have in humans is not always consistent, and the response of the zombies to the dog that the young girl Melanie discovers does not make sense. These are isolated moments, and compared to most zombie pictures the plot has rigour. The wanderings of the heroes reveal a ruined urban landscape. The use of British brand names and shopping malls crowded with puzzled zombies implies criticism of the modern world. It predicts a world where escapist materialism and optimism are redundant and well beyond ordinary people. The zombies can be regarded as representing the excluded of the future, creatures without the necessary style and wit to make the required contribution. They will be considered a nuisance. Once employed as manual labourers and warriors these are the people that well paid and intelligent computer technicians are already referring to as ‘the useless class’.
The notion that zombies may be the beginning of a species superior to human beings is present from the beginning of the film but it is expanded and consolidated when Melanie explores abandoned homes or what she regards as the achievements of human beings. The possibility of zombies becoming a superior form to humans makes sense. We began as unassertive amoeba. We can only wonder what the trees and rocks thought of our amoebic ancestors. It is doubtful that they were impressed. In a film that insists we abandon our sense of self-importance even the end titles oblige us to think again. An image of the human brain is magnified until it becomes a vast mysterious universe. This is what we carry inside our skulls and it is as much a mystery to us as it would have been to the amoeba that fought for life in the sea and streams. Brains, though, of course, they lacked.
The Girl With All the Gifts is impressive because it has ideas that reinvent zombie themes but a plot that leads us to something more grand and inspiring. Rosalind Franklin, one of the scientists that discovered DNA, is mentioned. The laboratory to which the humans flee is named after her. It occurs in the film before we realise why the reference is relevant. Like much else that is in the film, it requires us to think. Well, we have to do something with our brains.
Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including Horror Pickers a collection of film criticism. His latest novel Choke Bay is available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.