The Girl With All The Gifts uses Schrodinger’s cat to (quite literally) pose its thematic question early on. If there’s a cat in a box, is it alive or dead? Both? Neither? What if it’s not a cat, but a young girl?
It’s a little heavy handed, but it gets the point across. The film only scratches at the question’s surface for the majority of its running time, though, and never reaches the lofty goals director Colm McCarthy and writer Mike Carey clearly had in mind.
The Girl With All The Gifts starts with Melanie (Sennia Nanua) at home in her world:
She lives in a locked cell at night, and she happily readies herself to be strapped into a wheelchair in the morning—a task handled by armed military personnel. She goes to class and proves herself to be a star pupil, and a personal favorite of teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), but that only matters so much once the film’s premise kicks in.
Zombies, called Hungries in universe, have overtaken the world, and the kids are infected. They’re second generation infected, though, meaning they can function mostly like human beings—until they’re exposed to the scent of human flesh. They go full zombie once that happens, making it a less than ideal scenario for the film’s human characters to find themselves in. The facility Melanie calls home is lost to the zombies, sending Melanie on the run with Justineau, Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close), Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine), and a handful of military types.
Melanie wants to live. Justineau sees her as a child and wants the same. Caldwell sees her as a piece of the cure, so she’s firmly on team “kill her for science”. Parks and the other military types would rather kill her to be done with it.
The ragtag group meanders through a survival story, including a couple admittedly chilling set pieces involving massive groups of zombies. There are a couple other bases and camps they can try to get to, but no one’s answering. There are obstacles and zombie encounters along the way. It’s all pretty standard stuff, relying pretty heavily on its twist on the typical zombie story for support.
And the twist is enough to keep the film watchable. Interesting, even. But it never rises above that level. A lot of the film’s events seem to unfold out of the need for story rather than for organic reasons. Characters have goals, but none of them are really working toward those goals for the bulk of the story. Survival is always at the forefront, of course, but the big question here, the fate of Melanie and others like her, is ignored for the majority of the film. The conclusion feels tacked on and unearned
It’s all incredibly frustrating because The Girl With All The Gifts came so close to getting everything right. This is a film that could have been great. A film that could have been considered among the best zombie/horror/genre films of all time. The pieces just didn’t connect, and it’s that close call with greatness that makes Girl all the more disappointing.
There are a few incredibly tense scenes, and even some with legitimate scares, but Girl is not a horror movie. This is a drama about character that just happens to involve zombies and an apocalypse level threat to the world. The scares that are present are good enough to entertain people just looking for a zombie fix, but they’re scattered enough that those only in it for the scares are unlikely to be satisfied.
There are a couple comparisons that don’t do Girl any favors, too, further compounding its issues. The film is visually and conceptually similar to Danny Boyle’s excellent 28 Days Later, and its British setting makes comparisons all but inevitable. It doesn’t help that Girl isn’t able to reach the successes of 28 Days Later on any level.
The biggest hangup for me, though, and possibly for a lot of other game enthusiasts, is another property that really beat Girl to the punch: Naughty Dog’s PlayStation game The Last of Us. Though the premises aren’t identical, they’re incredibly similar. And The Last of Us handles the premise much better, with a weight and poignancy simply not present in Girl. This isn’t a fair comparison, of course, as I’m comparing a 15-ish hour game to a two hour movie, but the similarities make it unavoidable.
The Girl With All The Gifts is good. It might even be more than that, but it’s held back by a brush with and subsequent retreat from greatness. Sennia Nanua gives a riveting performance, though, and the film is just good enough to still get a blanket recommendation. I haven’t Carey’s book the film is based on, but I feel pretty confident giving it a much stronger thumbs up.