When the story begins all is calm. Well, as calm as the dystopian future can ever be. A fungal disease called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis has devastated the planet, leaving those affected without free will but with a taste for blood. These “hungries” are set to take over unless something can be done. Enter a group of children infected by the disease but capable of advanced thought. In the search for a cure these children are studied at a remote English army base run by Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close). The children are shackled to chairs, forced to wear face masks and have no skin to skin contact with the doctors, teachers or soldiers who look after them. Despite their small sizes everyone regards them as dangerous, hungry creatures—after all they did eat their way out of their wombs!—except teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton). She reads them stories and has bonded with one remarkable child, Melanie (Sennia Nanua). The youngster is as lethal as the others but is possessed of superior intelligence and charm.
When the base is overrun by “hungries” Dr. Caldwell, Helen and Melanie escape but not before the child shows her true colours. “I did something bad,” she says. “I ate bits of the soldiers.” With the help of the world-weary Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) they make their way to London.
“Our mission statement is to gather data,” says the good doctor.
“It was until the fence went down,” grunts Eddie. “Now our mission statement is to keep ourselves off the menu.”
“The Girl With All the Gifts” borrows from George A. Romero, Danny Boyle and even from “The Walking Dead” and yet its mix of social commentary, zippy zombies and exploding skulls doesn’t feel like a re-tread.
The addition of a child, deadly though she may be, brings empathy to a world so often devoid of compassion. It also opens up some opportunities for dark humour—“Don’t play with anybody who looks dead,” Melanie is warned—that come as a welcome break from the bleakness of many dystopian zombie-fests. As Melanie, Nanua is tremendous, bringing some real humanity to a character who lives on the fringes of humanity.
“The Girl with All the Gifts” is not as outright scary as “28 Days Later” or “Night of the Living Dead,” but it is unsettling. Deliberately paced, it slowly builds to a climax that asks difficult questions about the price of survival, capping it with the chilling words, (MILD SPOILER) “It’s not all over, it’s just not yours anymore.”