IN RICHARD MATHESON’S 1954 novel I Am Legend, a pandemic whose symptoms resemble vampirism spreads by dust storms in the cities and an explosion in the mosquito population. But Matheson’s slow-moving story also spawned its own kind of pandemic, albeit a literary and cinematic one, defined by apocalyptic scenarios in which a single survivor or handful of survivors attempt to survive relentless hordes of the undead or infected.
Colm McCarthy’s The Girl with All the Gifts, which was adapted from its novel for the screen by author M.R. Carey, subverts this idea. Its protagonist is neither a lone survivor––a Last Man character in the mould of I Am Legend’s Robert Neville or 28 Days Later’s Jim––nor a member of the savage infected. Rather, Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a highly intelligent and persuasive and charming girl of around ten years old, lies somewhere in between. The story takes place in the near future, when a mutation of a fungus has transformed much of mankind into large collections of fast-moving and mindless flesh-eaters referred to as “Hungries.” Their childish and affectionate sort of name belies a savagery and grotesqueness from which director Colm McCarthy never shies away. Hungries, if locked up and absent of food, will begin to eat themselves.
The story takes place in the near future, when a mutation of a fungus has transformed much of mankind into large collections of fast-moving and mindless flesh-eaters referred to as “Hungries.” Their childish and affectionate sort of name belies a savagery and grotesqueness from which director Colm McCarthy never shies away.
Melanie is one of a group of twenty or so hybrid, second-generation Hungry children who crave flesh but retain their mental faculties. These children go to a “school” at an army base in the Home Counties, where the sinister Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) is hoping to find a cure or vaccination by experimenting on them. Meanwhile, Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) angers her colleagues by humanising the children she teaches and telling them stories from Ancient Greek mythology.
The various allusions and references, which run the gamut from Pandora’s Box and Odysseus’ encounter with the witch Circe to the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment, are not subtle. From the outset, Melanie’s intellectual gifts and boundless charm make her something of an apparent paradox: she isn’t human, but at the same time she is creative, empathetic, intelligent and polite. In supporting roles, Paddy Considine, who plays the businesslike and authoritarian Sergeant Eddie Parks, and Gemma Arterton as the kind Ms. Justineau, capture in their characters’ interactions with Melanie the strange simultaneous feelings of both fear and affection that the young girl inspires. In the case of Parks, this is resolved initially by dehumanising Melanie, but it quickly becomes the case that this is no longer possible. Owing mainly to the musical talents of Cristobal Tapia de Veer, whose unsettling score calls to mind a skipping record in one scene and the numinous in the next, Melanie can also inspire awe. She is, after all, the girl with all the gifts.
Owing mainly to the musical talents of Cristobal Tapia de Veer, whose unsettling score calls to mind a skipping record in one scene and the numinous in the next, Melanie can also inspire awe. She is, after all, the girl with all the gifts.
More recent incarnations of the zombie apocalypse theme have often brought with them a broader subtext than that of Matheson’s early inspiration for the genre. While Matheson and his immediate predecessors, writing in the aftermath of World War II and at the height both of the Cold War and the civil rights movements, brought to the fore the fragility of civilisation and the unreliability of individuals to pursue the greater good when their own survival was at risk, films like 28 Days Later evoke instead global fears of an uncontrollable epidemic or supervirus. There is, I think, also a case to be made for the portrayal of zombies as addicts or, if you prefer, sufferers of addiction. (In The Girl with All the Gifts, a Hungry, having fed, slips into a blissed-out, euphoric state, its eyes rolling back in its head and a contented expression spreading across its bloody face). Nevertheless, and though it does look to subvert the genre, The Girl with All the Gifts still feels worn out. Its exceptional cast and willingness to try new ideas are really all that separate it from other genre films, but those same ideas rarely inspire any interesting kind of mental activity in the way that its creators might like it to.