14 Years Later
Not many films this year can boast an opening as striking as that of Colm McCarthy's The Girl With All The Gifts: we meet a young girl, Melanie (Sennia Nanua), who appears to be about twelve. She is bright, thoughtful, imaginative and friendly. So why is she being held in what seems to be a particularly grim prison? Why is she routinely placed under heavy restraint and wheeled off to a classroom where she and many other children (also strapped into their wheelchairs) receive a rather odd education? Why are the uniformed squaddies responsible for moving her about so absolutely terrified of her? What is the purpose of the peculiar tests being made by a scientist (Glenn Close) who is studying the children?
I had the great good fortune of going to see The Girl With All The Gifts on a fairly casual basis – I had a free evening, knew this was some sort of genre movie, and so wandered along knowing very little about it. For it to prove to be one of the best SF movies of the year therefore came as a wonderful surprise, and attempting to ensure other people have the same kind of experience I had means that my ability to talk about the plot in detail is necessarily limited. If you're the kind of person who likes SF movies, especially ones with a twist of horror, then this film should probably be on your list of things to see. But I would strongly recommend you don't check out synopses, don't do too much research on it, and even be very careful about the reviews that you read (even here I find myself obliged to say more than I probably should, simply in order to give the film some sort of context).
The film is part of a great tradition of apocalyptic British SF, but it most clearly owes a debt to 28 Days Later and its sequel, and the boom in a certain type of horror movie which has now been ongoing for nearly 15 years. This is not to say that The Girl With All The Gifts is simply another identikit zombie apocalypse story, but it's certainly not afraid to take all the tropes and paraphernalia of that particular kind of story and do some new and interesting things with them. I know that some people have expressed what I suppose we must call zombie fatigue when talking about this film, and I suppose if shambling masses are not your thing then that's fair enough, but the fact remains that the classic zombie movie bits that this film does, it does really well.
The thing is, though, that the makers of 28 Days Later were at great pains to stress that there weren't any zombies in their movie, and the makers of this film could equally make the same claim with the same degree of honesty. The similarity doesn't stop there, either, for in terms of imagery, sensibility, setting and theme, one could quite easily imagine a version of this film functioning as a third episode in the 28 series, albeit with a few essential rewrites.
Ultimately the film proves to be its own thing, however, although one with a debt to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland, amongst others. I detected a hint of The Day of the Triffids in its narrative DNA (though you could argue that The Day of the Triffids is the ur-text for this kind of story, as Boyle and Garland have acknowledged themselves), and a strong flavour of I Am Legend (literary rather than cinema version). What matters is that while the look of the film is that of a gritty urban horror movie, its influences are pure SF, and the story depends on a series of twists and shifts in perspective and conceptual breakthroughs that likewise are only found in true science fiction.
Similarly, while the film includes some iconic zombie imagery – hordes of figures pressed up against barbed wire, not to mention an infested shopping centre to gladden George Romero's heart – some of its most striking sequences feature other ideas, such as the Post Office Tower festooned with alien vegetation or human survivors being stalked by... well, find out for yourselves.
The strength of the script is matched by the execution, with a strong cast all on top form. Quite apart from Close and Nennua (both excellent, with Nennua giving an astonishingly assured performance), the film is carried by Paddy Considine and Gemma Arterton, both of whom are quite as good as you could hope for – Considine's developing relationship with Nennua as the film goes on is particularly good.
None of this would matter if the film didn't look convincing, and thankfully it does: this is, by modern standards, a very low-budget film – it was made on one-seventh of the budget of Bridget Jones's Baby, less than a twentieth of that of The Magnificent Seven – but it never looks it. What makes it really cinematic, in the end, is the film's use of sound – not exactly music per se, but a strange and unsettling sound design that complements the story and its atmosphere perfectly.
The Girl With All The Gifts has done a very good job of looking like something quite generic and commercial, perhaps even to the point where it looks very much like the kind of film you've probably seen before. I hope this doesn't actually harm its performance, because it repurposes everything in it to serve a distinctly original story. More than many recent movies, it uses unsettling and disturbing ideas to affect the viewer, rather than simple jump scares. It may at heart be an excellent SF movie, but it also works extremely well as a horror movie too, and if you enjoy either genre then this is a film you really shouldn't miss.