Whoever botched the distribution for the recent zombie-themed sci-fi horror The Girl with All the Gifts should be ashamed of themselves. It took two full years for this British production to reach American shores, only to be quietly dumped onto VOD instead of enjoying a full theatrical run. A little apprehension about its chances in wide release is understandable. If this film were released in the mid-00s it’d be considered highly marketable, but its genre’s cultural status has changed since then. The zombie film as a medium may have reached its cultural nadir last year with the exceedingly silly Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but that doesn’t mean the genre is thematically bankrupt by nature. The recent South Korean action thriller Train to Busan alone was exciting enough for some critics to declare the zombie genre undead and now we have a small, thoughtful drama with a strong sci-fi bent arriving in its wake to very little, if any fanfare. On paper, a sci-fi horror with a female lead (and several well-written female supporting characters) that narratively splits the difference between Logan & 28 Days Later sounds like an easy sell. It must have arrived to the market at the exact wrong time, though, as it only earned half of its budget back in its brief run at the box office. Time should be very kind to The Girl with All the Gifts, but modern audiences & distributors weren’t, probably due to an understandable bout of genre exhaustion.
The opening half hour of this film is absolutely stunning. The concluding half hour is similarly worthy of praise & attention. It’s everything between those points that could be accused of slipping into overly-familiar genre territory. The Girl with All the Gifts begins in a military facility where children are being groomed & studied for mysterious scientific purposes, not unlike in the recent art horror piece Evolution. The star pupil/prisoner at this facility is an unusually intelligent youngster named Melanie (promising newcomer Sennia Nanua). This eternally chipper, persistently curious young’n responds to the military security guards referring to her as “it” and “an abortion” with a smiling “Good morning!” and “You’re very welcome!” despite being restrained and wheeled around like a pint-sized Hannibal Lector. She eventually sets in motion an action adventure plot where she, her most adoring teacher, a few overly-cautious security guards, and an uncaring scientist creep (an effectively chilling Glenn Close) venture into a cinematically familiar world of abandoned, zombie-infested cities. It’s out in this post-apocalyptic hellscape that the movie begins to feel a little disappointingly generic, especially in its assertion that Melanie may just be the key to their search for a cure. However, the solution to the problem of The Cure is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a zombie film before and The Girl with All the Gifts finds its own way to refresh the genre by focusing on the scientific implications of the way its zombie virus spreads & the philosophical implications of what it means to attempt to stop it.
The major variation on genre expectation here is the way the film plays with the children in peril trope. The initial hook of The Girl with All the Gifts is that it complicates the emotional effect of placing a child in danger by making that child a danger herself. Like in Logan, we’re asked to sympathize & identify with a young girl who has to be held back from doing harm to others, even to the people she loves. It’s difficult not to pity a child who’s locked in a cell & forced to eat worms for sustenance, but once you see the potential damage that can be wrought if those worms & that cell are taken away from her the scenario becomes a little more nuanced. Thankfully, that twist on the children in peril trope isn’t the only major conflict the film has in mind. After a brief, forgivable trek through Search for a Cure zombie film tedium, The Girl with All the Gifts sinks into a fascinating exploration of the ways Nature reclaims human structures when given enough time and how human bodies are a part of that reclamation. Fighting against Nature’s course is proposed to be potentially futile, which is a pretty hefty lesson to stomach within a genre that’s often reduced to cheap jump scares and Michael Jackson dance routines. The post-Romero tradition of zombie cinema has always thrived on reaching for metaphor in its modes of undead havoc and although The Girl with All the Gifts may briefly appear to be something you’ve seen before in its second act stretch, it eventually finds new thematic purpose for the genre. That’s no small feat, considering the decades of tradition it’s riding in on, not to mention the oversaturation of the zombie market in the past decade alone.
If nothing else, this film is proof that a straightforward, gimmick-free zombie movie can still be worthwhile. There’s no real need for Zombieland, Fido, Life After Beth, Warm Bodies, The Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, and their like-minded contemporaries to shake up the genre with jokey meta humor (although I’ll admit to enjoying all five of those films to some degree, due to being a huge sucker for gimmicky horror in general). The Girl with All the Gifts does what it can to best distinguish itself within the genre, searching for a very specific aesthetic in its militaristic grey & green color palette, its loopy drone soundtrack, and its world-building details like a scent-distorting “blocker gel” that repels the zombies, who characters call “hungries.” There’s also a literary feel to the film in a larger sense, which includes blatant references to things like Pandora’s Box & Schroedinger’s Cat, perhaps as a result of its nature as an adaptation of a pre-existing novel. For the most part, though, the film tries to excel through basic measurements of craft. Its dialogue is well-performed, its creepy sound design is top notch in terms of tension & atmosphere, and it manages to stage a convincing, fantastic image of widespread, zombie-fueled chaos on a miniscule indie horror budget. If released in the mid-00s days of the James Gunn/Zack Snyder Dawn of the Dead and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later I have no doubt this film would have been a hit. It’s an impressively well-made genre entry that wrings plenty of surprise pleasures out of a medium everyone presumed was bone dry, simply through strength of craft & metaphor. Hopefully as modern culture’s zombie fatigue lifts, The Girl with All the Gifts will get its due as a thoughtful, thematically-rich sci-fi horror flick. Even if that never happens, it will always remain a great film.