Even in my fairly lukewarm response to M.R. Carey’s novel The Girl with All the Gifts (2016), I noted it would probably make a sensational horror film. Sure enough, it does; in fact, I think I preferred the film, as it feels more like the story’s natural medium.
The eponymous character is Melanie (the wonderful Sennia Nanua), a bright young girl who lives like a prisoner in an underground bunker, where she’s ordered about by officious, gun-wielding soldiers. But there’s a bright spot in her life: Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), the teacher who spends each day instructing Melanie and the other children. Melanie seems like a perfectly normal girl, if not an exceptionally intelligent and pleasant one. But there’s a reason her militant jailers are scared to death of her: she’s infected with a fungus that turns most humans into flesh-eating zombies. Unlike most “hungries,” Melanie and the other children in the bunker present as normal, only showing their zombie-like behaviors when then need to eat. Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) therefore sees them as key to developing a vaccine to the hungry virus. When the research facility’s security breaks down, Melanie, Helen, Caldwell, and others are forced to flee for their lives, and despite their fear, begin to see Melanie as the remarkable person she is.
The Girl with All the Gifts isn’t a particularly innovative story, slotting quite comfortably into the glut of zombie apocalypse tales of the past decade or so. Fans of The Last of Us video game or 28 Days Later will find the trappings quite familiar. But like the novel, the film is a triumph of execution: nicely developed characters, a chilling and thoroughly imagined scenario, terrifying suspense sequences, and a satisfying escalation from skiffy mystery into harrowing survival tale. Why the primary two characters, Melanie and Helen , were race-swapped is surely matter for debate; it’s nearly forgiveable as it gives us Sennia Nanua in the lead role, and she is terrific. Arterton and Paddy Considine are solid, while Glenn Close is especially convincing as the hard-nosed Dr. Caldwell. Fans of horror and zombie tales in particular will find plenty to love here.