The classic zombie film's gone all 'of mice and monsters', with M.R. Carey's bestselling book, taken to the big screen to delve into all things apocalyptic, survivalist, and downright bloody, in an adaptation which proves to be more bark than bite.
Being a zombie film and being profound are two circles with a very, very small overlap in their shared ven diagram. For some reason the undead don’t tend to indulge much in things of depth. But occasionally, the two will overlap and it is then that the whole world rejoices, because, be honest with yourself, is there anything more you want than to watch slightly pretentious devil children rise from the grave to make war on Earth? No, the answer is no.
The first example that should come to everyone’s mind is the instance that Danny Boyle, a director whose middle name I expect is ‘profound’, broached the realm of the dreaded Z-day in 2002‘s 28 Days Later which used zombies and the theme of ‘the abject’ to pose the uncomfortable limits of human nature. In a similar vein, Charlie Brooker’s TV show Dead Set used the undead and the like to explore a very human addiction to technology and prospects of fame. So after the fourteen years of zom-coms (Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland), blood fests (Dead Snow) and downright dead stupid apocalyptic action ‘thrillers’ (World War Z), can someone please return to form and use our undead chums to spark some life into cinema?
Well we can certainly say someone tried. Adapted from his eponymously named hit novel, M.R. Carey teams up with director Colm McCarthy to bring the best post-apocalyptic novel of recent years to the big screen. In a vein similar to The Enemy books, it takes a child’s perspective, younger than the kids of 28 Weeks Later, so young enough to smuggle in some of that coming-of-age tomfoolery (the sneaky bastard), but old enough to know when to kill the switch on it too. A tricky place to lay a film to rest, but it pulls it off. Kinda. Sorta.
Dissimilar to any of its kind, however, is the form the child takes – which is very much in the realm of ‘being one of those hungry bitey things over there’. Not to worry though, my survivalist chums, slab some of that blocker gel on you and you’ll be sorted. All set to teach these hungry little innocents about all things science, English and history – including a pretty droll quip about Odysseus’ sexual endeavours. That is, until, the film really begins to take hold, which is, coincidentally, when that first big ol’ zombie attack comes crashing the party. A prime opportunity in its finest form to start showing off those lovely cinematographic skills, which is, coincidentally, exactly what it does.
Whilst The Girl with All the Gifts gets off to an incredibly shaky start in terms of script, that first attack scene is an example of cinematic technicality used to gleaming brilliance, and the film’s best effort in its entire 111-minute run time. Shame it had to be so early, to be honest. Editing and sound are the film’s two most ethereal elements, which elevate the film to a level so much higher than some of the more recent zombie films, and it is through this that they begin to twirl the very means of creation and destruction around their little fingers, and don’t start to let go until the very end.
And what an ending that was. With the exception of the short epilogue which just about saved the entire third act from falling into a shallow grave, you may as well chuck all hopes of logical satisfaction out the densely airlocked window before buying your ticket for this one. Motivations are unclear, characters are left at the sidelines, and, to be frank, the ending would have been so much easier to get on board with if it hadn’t seemed like it was there just for the shock-factor. Which, obviously, it isn’t because the book has a similar conclusion, but jesus, if there was a literal representation of the chicken emoji this would be it, because this is cowardly controversy at its finest, ladies and gents.
So whilst The Girl with All the Gifts stands out as a remarkable zombie film, especially considered with recent years brandishing only World War Z as one of the best it has to offer, and it no doubt glitters in its unique perspective, it misses the bite films like 28 Days Later packs, and stands more on the razzle-dazzle level of 28 Weeks. Subtlety is both its best and worst points – nuanced symbolism one minute, clunky exposition and foreshadowing the next (‘But Miss. Justineux, there aren’t any bad things…here are there???’ Melanie laments before all the shit starts hitting the fan). But no doubt it’s troubling, uncomfortable to the very bones – a shot of one ‘hungry’ pushing a pram whilst a rat gnaws at her mangled baby’s bloodied face is a particularly emotive memory – and its pacing is utterly on point, but it misses the deep, dark, human connection it could have so easily inspired. Dead shame, that is.
The Girl with All the Gifts, directed by Colm McCarthy, is distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Certificate 15.