Mike Carey’s 2014 novel The Girl With All the Gifts was one of the most successful genre releases of that year, nominated for a number of awards and acclaimed by critics and sci-fi/horror luminaries. Its film adaptation, written by Carey in tandem with the novel, has not been as successful, despite premiering at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and garnering mostly positive reviews. It didn’t make much of a dent at the U.K. box office last year, and in the U.S. it’s premiering on DirecTV before getting a limited theatrical run at the same time as VOD. That’s a shame, because it’s better than the majority of quickie horror movies that studios throw into wide release throughout the year, even if it’s not quite as powerful as Carey’s novel.
Although some of the events have been condensed and streamlined, the film version of Gifts follows essentially the same plot, beginning in a mysterious underground bunker where young Melanie (excellent newcomer Sennia Nanua) and several other children her age are held by military personnel, kept in cells and shackled to chairs for their daily lessons with teachers including the compassionate Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton). Soon it’s revealed that the bunker is part of a secure (or supposedly secure) military base and that the world outside has been overrun by zombies (called “hungries”) for decades. Melanie and her peers are a new breed of intelligent zombies, kept at the bunker so they can be studied in hopes of developing a zombie cure.
Once the base gets invaded by hungries and Melanie and Miss Justineau go on the run with a military sergeant (Paddy Considine) and two of his soldiers, the movie spends a bit of time with familiar zombie-movie devices, as the humans must avoid being bitten while they seek out a supposed sanctuary across the barren post-apocalyptic landscape. But like Carey’s novel, the film isn’t content to recycle zombie clichés, and Melanie herself is a fascinatingly original kind of zombie character, connected to the sympathetic zombies of works like Warm Bodies and iZombie but with her own unique background and outlook. Carey and director Colm McCarthy (veteran of British TV series like Doctor Who, Peaky Blinders and Sherlock) create a world in which humans are losing out to a new species, and Melanie is less interested in becoming human (since she’s never been human) than in discovering the full potential of what she actually is.
Nanua captures those complex feelings with remarkable assurance, and Arterton is warm and vulnerable as the woman who can’t help but be drawn to the monster who acts like a little girl (or is it the other way around?). The military characters (especially the young private who also bonds with Melanie) are less distinctive than in the book, but the focus on Melanie’s perspective helps avoid some of the more obvious zombie clichés. Also toned down from the book is the amoral cruelty of Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close), a scientist who escapes the base with Melanie and her associates, and whose obsession with finding the cure for zombie-ism constantly threatens Melanie’s life. Close brings more humanity to the role, and the story’s eventual outcome makes Dr. Caldwell into a sort of tragic figure, as history and evolution pass her by.
That outcome is both poignant and unsettling, a culmination of the horror-movie suspense and the scientific and philosophical musings that precede it. Carey and McCarthy pare down the sometimes overly detailed technical explanations of the book in favor of something a bit more primal, and while this Girl may not be the scariest zombie movie in recent years, it makes a case for being the most thought-provoking.