Zombies in themselves aren’t that interesting, are they? If they don’t want to eat your flesh and slurp your brains, they just stand around rotting and smelling badly. Some of them walk slowly, others are able to run towards you. There are some who learn a thing or two, like climbing a ladder after you, or bashing a glass door in with a heavy rock or their own head. That’s about it. The key, then, to rather long-running series like The Walking Dead, or to movies like 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later is that those stories are all about the living, who are the survivors in some post-apocalytpic world with scant food and shelter and safety, where they are the endangered species, and mostly vastly outnumbered by zombies. Yes, sometimes the zombies get the living, but it’s also the living who seem to be very good at killing each other off when pushed into a corner like that. Humans have become a minority. It’s a metaphor that every audience member immediately understands.
In The Girl with All the Gifts, the zombie apocalypse has already happened. The film opens in some kind of fortress, where pre-teens in orange jump-suits wake up in their cells and are strapped into wheelchairs while heavily-armed soldiers watch over them. What’s with those kids? They live in a compound controlled by Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine). They get taught by Dr. Selkirk, a heartless task-master (Anamaria Marinca), and by Ms Justineau (Gemma Arterton), a kind teacher, maybe too kind. She is especially fond of Melanie (Sennia Nanua), who seems to be the smartest, and best-behaved kid among them. There is also Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close), who lets pick Melanie a number between 1 and 20. Melanie realises quickly that Dr. Caldwell will pick one of her classmates for finding a cure for the fungus that turned billions into hungries (this film’s term for the zombies). Needless to say, that classmate won’t turn up the next day. So Dr. Caldwell is prepared to kill one child after the next until eventually, a vaccine can be found to save all of humankind. It’s a role well played by Glenn Close, but I wanted to know more about her conflicts. Why does she think that Melanie is the one who will deliver the vaccine, and why does she sacrifice all the other kids before that? How many kids will she sacrifice? The movie doesn’t answer the question; maybe the answer is in Mike Carey’s novel of the same name, on which the film is based.
SPOILER ALERT. It eventually transpires that Melanie and the other kids are part hungries, but with long stretches of human-like behaviour. They were found in a maternity ward, where they clawed their way out of their mothers’ wombs and then found by Sergeant Parks. They still get into zombie mode when they smell blood, and Melanie has to wear a transparent face mask that gives her an uncanny aspect, especially if there are smears of blood underneath. Later, they will encounter a gang of feral kids, who didn’t have the chance of being rounded up by Parks. That might be an advantage, or maybe not. There is a next stage to their, erm, evolution: remember that it’s a fungus in the brain turning them into hungries. If enough dead hungries collate their fungi, they grow together and upwards, “like ivy around an oak tree”, as Dr. Caldwell puts it. They form seed pods, and when those seeds are set free, all the remaining humans turn into hungries, i.e. into food for the higher-developed Melanies of the world. Which means that, a few hours after the credits run, all humans are wiped out. That’s too dark even for me.
I don’t know about you, but that plot-point basically sabotages the movie’s third act. Zombie films and series live on the premise that it is us and them, and we, the humans, have their back against the wall; we might have the weaspons and the moral high ground, but we run low on supplies and shelter and company, but although we are vastly outnumbered, we have some kind of fighting chance. With those seed pods, we lose, and a higher-developed breed of kids will take over. That is just too hopeless to think about.
There are some very good performances in here. Sennia Nanua is great as Melanie, and Considine, Arterton and Close do what they can with their roles, but none of the grown-ups have much of a backstory. Kurt Vonnegut says every character should at least want something, if it is only a glass of water. He was referring to writing novels, but it goes for movies, too. Dr. Caldwell is looking for a vaccine, Parks is protective of humankind, and Justineau is protective of Melanie, but other than that, there is nothing to them, so how should we care much if any of them die at the teeth of the hungries? That lack of depth, together with the opening of the seed pods, pull the rug from under a movie that, for the first half-hour, is as good as they come. And an audience might be better off with even a glimmer of a chance for human survival than no chance at all. You’ve got to have someone to root for.