*. I think it would have been hard, in 2016, to find a genre more thoroughly exhausted, both as popular entertainment and as metaphor, than the zombie film. That The Girl with All the Gifts doesn’t reinvent anything but still manages to be a zombie film with enough that’s new to hold one’s attention throughout is no small accomplishment.
*. A note on funding, given that we are talking about a zombie movie. Half of the film’s modest £4 million budget came from the partnership of the BFI Film Fund and Creative England, which made it a huge investment for both bodies. These are basically sources of public funding (though Creative England is both publicly and privately funded), and one may question their involvement.
*. It’s argued by some that government funding of the arts (not just film but publishing, theatre, dance, etc.) should go toward projects that can’t be expected to make money because they are more experimental or just non-commercial. Others find this wrongheaded, saying that work that cannot find an audience shouldn’t be supported by public money. I can see where this latter argument is coming from, but on the other hand I wonder how much government support needs to or should be directed toward producing what are purely commercial ventures. I mean, if you can’t get private funding for a zombie flick either you haven’t knocked on enough doors or there’s something about the project that’s not right.
*. That said, I’m glad that someone came through with the money to make The Girl with All the Gifts as it’s really very good. As with most such successful genre pieces it takes the basic formula and gives it just a bit of a tweak to make it somewhat new. The main tweak here is that the zombie apocalypse is brought on by a variation of the cordyceps fungus that, watchers of BBC nature docs will know, turns ants into “zombies.” David Attenborough was my source for knowledge of this fungus, and the filmmakers credit the same inspiration. Gamers, however, were quick to point out that it’s also used in the video game The Last of Us (2013), so it wasn’t entirely new even in the zombie genre. Still, it’s something I hadn’t seen on screen before, and the mannequin zombies waiting to be triggered felt new to me.
*. The cities returning to nature in the video game also seem to have been drawn on in the creation of the urban locations here, though the look wasn’t entirely new (director Colm McCarthy said he was borrowing from Gareth Edwards’s Monsters). In any event, the production design look terrific. Art departments have really got “ruin porn” (the label used by McCarthy) down pat. Some shots were actually taken by a drone unit sent to Pripyat in Ukraine, a city deserted since the Chernobyl disaster. Apparently it mixed in really well with stuff shot in the English Midlands, including a hospital that had been left deserted for over ten years. I’m thinking there may be a deeper social-political message in that.
*. I also wonder if there was any political message in the idea of having the girl Melanie (Sennia Nanua) be Black. In the book she’s apparently blonde and blue-eyed and it’s Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton) who is Black. The political point being that Melanie represents a possible new race of inheritors who will “replace” the last of us. If that is the political point, I’m not sure it’s very progressive. It seems more like they stepped into a mess, sort of like the way the anti-vaccine movement would be accidentally valorized in The Invasion.
*. The zombie basics stay the same, even if they don’t make much sense. The infected are Hungries who only eat human flesh. Why? Not sure. I’m also not sure why it’s only shots to the head that bring them down. Given the high-powered assault rifles the soldiers are armed with, they should be killing the Hungries easily with body shots, but that only seems to slow them down momentarily.
*. The British army doesn’t give a very good account of itself, does it? The base gets overrun and wiped out pretty easily. The gang in The Walking Dead did better defending their prison keep. And what was the army’s bug-out plan? Did they even have one?
*. I’m sure I’m missing something, but I can’t understand the title. Yes, the myth of Pandora is introduced, rather crudely I thought, early on. So we’re meant to read Melanie as Pandora. I get that. But what’s the connection? In what sense is she Pandora? What gifts does she bring humankind? The release of more fungus spores? I can’t think of any gift she’s responsible for, much less “all” of them. How does she represent a punishment sent from the gods? What is her box? What does the connection between Melanie and Pandora mean?
*. The script isn’t great. Meaning that when the action slows down and people start to talk, usually just to introduce some necessary exposition, things stop dead. But the cast works really well. Glenn Close is the cold villainess of a certain age that she seems to be a natural for (the next year she’d play a similar role in Seven Sisters). Gemma Arterton is down-to-earth and relatable. Paddy Considine didn’t strike me as much of a soldier, but then I think he was just a bloke from the reserves. Sennia Nanua is great, but perhaps too likeable, too cute. I couldn’t follow her quick swings from resourceful little kid to stone cold killer and back again.
*. But you can still put me down as satisfied. Looking over some of my notes on the genre, this is probably my favorite zombie movie of the past ten years. The genre has definitely been stuck in a long slide since we hit peak zombie, which I previously reckoned as 2007. The 2010s were awful, giving us such low-grade, high-budget, parodic stuff as World War Z, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, The Dead Don’t Die, and Zombieland: Double Tap. I don’t think The Girl with All the Gifts reinvents the zombie film or does anything to revive the genre, but it does stand out as being one of the few solid entries from the past decade. Thanks England!