A mysterious disease has burned through mankind and turned most into flesh-eating ‘hungries’, forcing the scant survivors underground in search of a cure. In a subterranean military base, Dr Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) conducts experiments on a group of infected children (who, nonetheless, are still sentient) in the hope of unlocking the key to overcoming this disaster. One such girl, Melanie (Sennia Nanua), is much more special than the rest.
While various waves have come and gone in cinema, zombie movies have always retained a particular chokehold. Part of this comes down to natural selection: while other fads are anchored to a particular time or sentiment, the undead have proven themselves adaptable to genre, style and politics. More than anything, though, it’s because everyone knows that zombie movies aren’t really about the zombies. From Romero’s damning indictment of capitalist America in Dawn Of The Dead to Shaun Of The Dead’s perfect expression of twentysomething ennui, the parading living dead act as an allegorical backdrop to the exploration of something deeper. The Girl With All The Gifts fits right into this tradition and, despite its lumbering clichés and frequent ham-fistedness, deserves major props for ambition.
Partially by budgetary necessity and partially by design, McCarthy’s film is deceptively contemplative. Save for a few in-your-face action sequences (stylistically indebted to – but far less polished than – Cuarón’s feted one-shots), The Girl with All the Gifts creates and sustains its stakes through brainy conversations rather than brawny spectacle. Musing on the generational divide, as well as the fear and anxiety associated with it, are dramatized through a tale of the old guard exploiting young subjects in the name of sustaining our species.
The nature of this tale requires a substantial performer as the eponymous girl, with McCarthy placing a hefty amount of his chips on the shoulders of newcomer Sennia Nanua. Thankfully, for both the audience and the movie, she absolutely soars. Effortlessly emitting a charming curiosity and warm intelligence, Nanua’s Melanie is at once disarmingly relatable and uncannily unknowable. Smartly dispersed bursts of violence and a resourceful use of the £4 million budget tease out the epic scope of this world, complimenting her turn with an air of unnerving volatility. These various elements twirl towards a genuinely unexpected conclusion, which expresses the crucial sentiment of Matheson’s original I Am Legend far better than any of its actual big screen adaptations.
Unfortunately, the quality of the lead stands out in the face of an otherwise unconvincing work. M.R. Carey channels his novel into a screenplay with efficiency and a keen sense of pace, but never fleshes out the characters enough to delve into his big ideas as much as he needs to. Dynamics are etched out in broad strokes and archetypal dialogue scenes verbalize themes with a clumsiness that can’t help but undermine them. Patchy performances don’t help, either: Arterton, Considine and Close are all basically fine, but they don’t invest enough in their roles to form anything particularly memorable. By the time the climax comes around and these relationships start to pay off, the strides towards emotional resonance reach for something that simply isn’t there.
Which should by no means undermine what The Girl with All the Gifts manages to get right. Its reach may exceed its grasp, but the fact that it aims for something more cerebral than another 28 Days Later knock-off should be applauded. And with an attention-grabbing young actor in the lead, as well as a director with the canniness but not yet the visual sophistication to stretch a modest budget, it’s certainly something that points towards an exciting new generation. Fitting, really.