British cinema

REAL MEAN CRITTERS

THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS

UK 2016

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fearflix 47

ATTACK THE BLOCK

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Joe Cornish the writer and director of Attack The Block was educated at the independent, expensive and exclusive Westminster School.   This means he acquired knowledge and understanding amongst the British elite and that his family had more than a few bob. But Cornish was fortunate. Because London has had fifty years of gentrification, he grew up in a comfortable home that was situated alongside working class areas. In London the wealthy now fulfil the phenomenon that first appeared in the 1937 Bogart movie Dead End. The rich jostle alongside the poor.

At the beginning of Attack The Block a female white nurse called Sam walks past expensive residences and returns to her temporary home in a tower block. Londoners will understand the significance of her journey and note the geographical proximity of the rich, who have affluence and promise, to the others, who are expected to know their place and avoid resistance and protest. The almost final line of the film is a policeman saying to a black kid, ‘Don’t resist me.’

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Attack The Block is funny which is no surprise because Cornish began life as a comedian and because the success of Shaun Of The Dead inspired the producers to try a similar trick. Most of the comedy in both films arises because the characters are confused by inexplicable events. There are no role models or manuals for an apocalypse, and experience of black hairy monsters that have teeth that glow in the dark is limited. The characters in Attack The Block are not only confused, their responses to what is happening reveal the limits to their lives. Attack The Block may be sympathetic to its working class heroes but they are not self-sufficient. The education of the silly and uncool white middle-class teenager is important. He is the only one who has any clue as to what may be happening. The rest can do no more than remember movies and TV programmes.

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If this sounds like the usual middle-class scorn for ordinary people, Cornish does make fun of everyone. This includes the black kid who thinks MI6 is called Section 6, the exhausted parents glued to the television and oblivious to what their children may be doing outside their front doors, the wasted drug dealer, the desperate hard man, clueless policemen and the middle class nerd who wants to be accepted by black teenagers because he thinks they are an authentic alternative to his privilege.

There is division between the sexes in Attack The Block but it is not considered as sharp or as worthy of attention as the gap between the social classes and the conflict between black and white. The four teenage girls, though, are a hoot and almost steal the film.   Although dopey their sneers are robust defence mechanisms. Fortunately for the plot the girls relent and add to the mayhem. But as impressive as the comedy is in Attack The Block the two moments that stress the class and division in British society are what make the film important. These moments appear at the beginning and the end of the film and, although not didactic, they are bold indeed.

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On her way home Sam meets five black teenagers. The leader carries a knife, and the five attempt to mug Sam for her money. This shocks and impresses because we realise that these muggers are intended to be the sympathetic heroes of the film. When Sam describes her attackers to others, she calls them monsters. Her progress within the film consists of understanding that the teenagers, for all their flaws, are neighbours and human beings. The second memorable moment occurs close to the end of the film when the British flag is used as a positive symbol and plays a part in the survival of a key character. The message of the film is clear. Despite our differences we are all British, the rich and poor and the white and black. We need to accept that our neighbours, whoever they are and whatever their resentments and ambitions, are human beings. This mix of social criticism and nationalism is familiar, and so is the message. Brutalised people trying to survive in an unfair society should not make us waver from our commitment to national identity.

Samuel Fuller the maverick American director used his films to make the same point about the USA. He also criticised his society. Middle-class hypocrisy is exposed in The Naked Kiss. In that film his heroine is a bald female prostitute, admittedly she looks great when she grows hair.  In Shock Corridor and The Crimson Kimono American racism is dissected by Fuller. Yet the same man insisted upon national unity and loyalty. He did this because he considered patriotism not an emotional indulgence but a practical requirement for the survival and prosperity of that society. The Americans in the films of Samuel Fuller are not curious about alternative political philosophy. Indeed, few of them read. They are contemptuous of ‘reds and commies’. Not everyone, especially in Britain, liked the films of Fuller. Dilettantes who belonged to the same generation as the parents of Joe Cornish condemned Fuller as a fascist. The final film of Fuller was White Dog and it told the tale of a dog-owner who trains his dog to attack and kill black people. The film is a masterpiece and refutes any half baked notions about Fuller and fascism. His films, though, can make an audience uneasy and ambivalent. Fuller is not always sensitive.

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The childhood of Cornish meant that he was buffeted by working and middle-class communities that were alien to each other. Cornish may or may not be a devotee of Samuel Fuller but, torn between communities, he is entitled to have the same concerns about identity. Cornish has been lauded and has avoided the scorn Fuller suffered. No one has called Attack The Block fascist and neither should they do so but those who feel uneasy by the appearance of the Union Jack near the end of the film have their reasons. It is not difficult to imagine a British fascist watching the film and rethinking the target audience for his movement. Humour and wild chaos have made Attack The Block a cult film but the appearance of the British flag, however disquieting, takes it to another thought provoking level. Neither does the film have liberal internationalist sentiments. Sam and her boyfriend intend to travel abroad and help the poor in the underdeveloped world. Pest, the white teenager in the group of muggers, asks why the British middle class prefer to help poor foreigners rather than those within their country. Sam Fuller would have approved of the outburst by Pest, and, of course, so would a few fascists.

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British politicians of today scratch their empty heads over why social mobility in Britain is in reverse.  Attack The Block was made in 2010. That year a new Tory Government was elected. The Government imposed austerity but talked a lot about incentives for the wealthy. Since then seven million British families have become poorer and the income of the wealthiest 10% of the population has more than doubled. After the Tottenham riots of 2011, the same year that Attack The Block appeared in British cinemas, the British Government suspended the rule of law so that it could put people in prison for stealing a bottle of water.  Nobody in authority referred to the poor as equal neighbours. Hostility to immigrants has been nurtured, and the working class has been condemned as feral. The status of the poor is understood by the kids in Attack The Block. The alien monsters are described by one of the teenage gang as ‘blacker than my cousin’.  A national flag can be a dangerous symbol but Cornish suggests that it offers not just hope for the oppressed but insists upon responsibility and empathy from the privileged. He has a point, and so did Fuller. We should, though, be wary. To seek the promise of universal comfort in the Union Jack and wave the damned thing around is dangerous.

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The tower block where the action takes place is called Wyndham Tower and refers to the science fiction writer John Wyndham. There is also a reference to J G Ballard. None exist for H G Welles, which is a pity because the genre of alien invasion began with him. For most of the cast of Attack The Block this has been their finest moment so far. Many were handpicked local kids. Not all of them sound as if they have completed the training course for actors but in an odd way this helps the film. Everyone has a wild edge, as if all are defined by a hidden personal eccentricity and flaw. This includes the two young kids whose wide-eyed action fantasies skirt the main action. The gun waving chief dude is great, and so is his flabby white accomplice whose look of bemused compliance would be beyond a trained actor. Jodie Whittaker, the actor who plays Sam, has theatrical roots and has built an impressive and testing CV since Attack The Block. The male lead John Boyega is now famous and rich after appearing in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Who knows what will happen to Boyega. Presumably Peckham will remember him.

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Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book 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 other great titles, click here.