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rochefort [Celluloid 09.25.16] post apocalyptic zombies scifi horror action thriller

Pretty much every year at Fantastic Fest comes a film that prompts me to point out that the zombie movie is far from dead. From Rammbock to Wyrmwood, there's no denying that the oft-predicted end of the zombie film is still nowhere in sight, and this year's example is The Girl with All the Gifts, an adaptation of M. R. Carey's novel.

In it, Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is one of a dozen children locked deep inside the Beacon, an underground bunker lorded over by the British military. Every morning she and the others are strapped into wheelchairs at gunpoint and rolled into the classroom of Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), the only person in the entire installation who doesn't treat the kids like specimens to be studied or threats to be feared. The reason becomes clear soon enough: like the mobs of zombie-like infected (known here as "hungries") battering the fences above-ground in what has clearly become a massive apocalyptic plague, Melanie and her peers are also infected flesh-eaters, but for some reason still have quite a few distinctly human qualities. When the Beacon is overrun, Melanie, Justineau, and a small band of survivors escape, led by Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) and Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close), a scientist close to discovering the reason for the difference between Melanie's kind and the rest of the hungries horde.

The Girl with All the Gifts is directed by Colm McCarthy who, in addition to working on some of the best UK TV shows of recent years including "Sherlock," "Peaky Blinders," "MI-5" and "Doctor Who," debuted a few years back with "Outcast," which also played Fantastic Fest and which I liked quite a bit.

This time around he's working with a lot more money and star power, well-liked, award-winning source material, and a pretty neat premise that puts a nice spin on the typical zombie setup. The outbreak is due to a strange fungus, and much in the way the zombies in "The Walking Dead" can be fooled by coating oneself with zombie blood, the protective device here is called "blocker gel," and as long as it doesn't wear off a human can walk through a hungries throng with relative safety. But unlike the typical undead, the plant-based cause of the outbreak allows for some interesting new elements, such as pockets of hungries who are slowly growing back into the earth like grisly flowers. And since this is Melanie's story, it's pretty much the first coming-of-age movie of its kind, as Melanie wants to protect Justineau, but also needs to discover the truth of what she is and where she belongs.

The technical stuff is top-notch all around. Cinematographer Simon Dennis brings something genuinely new to the genre by using a color palette that changes with the story, cold and grey inside the walls of the Beacon, then dripping with damp orange and green once the team heads out into the unprotected world. The score is by Cristobal Tapia de Veer, who did the music for the brilliant UK series "Utopia," and all the elements that made that score so unique are present here as well, albeit a great deal more ominous. And once again, we see that more and more genre cinema is attracting some of the world's best acting talent. Arterton is a generally underrated actress just because she's so freakin' beautiful, and she does fine work; both Considine and Close are as good here as they've ever been. And newcomer Nanua, in her first feature, is clearly a serious talent.

Aside from a couple of scenes that feature some dodgy costume work for a clan of young hungries (think cave-people, missing only the bones in their hair), the only other thing that keeps this from being a rave review is the main theme itself.

MINOR SPOILERS for those who haven't read the book, so be warned.

Ultimately, the chief conceit isn't just that the fungal infection is winning the war with humanity, but that it deserves to. We've seen lots of similar themes in films like the Planet of the Apes series and Romero's own zombie films, of course, but those films seemed to indicate that our loss to a hostile or superior enemy was brought about by our own actions, or at least seemed justified in light of our monstrous behavior towards our own kind in the midst of a greater conflict. That's not the case here. None of the human characters are perfect, but they're at least decent people trying to do what they believe is right, and as a micro-sample of humanity they make us look pretty good. I haven't read the book so I don't know if the initial cause of the infection had anything to do with human avarice or hubris, but the movie itself depicts the extinction of humanity not as self-inflicted, but rather as just an unavoidable shift in the food chain.

What makes the overall theme an interesting but bitter pill to swallow is that this shift in the pecking order isn't even really an evolutionary paradigm shift, but rather a viral conquest we lost. And by the end it seems pretty clear that the creators of the story approve of this. So as a metaphor for progress, or tolerance, or integration, I couldn't help but derive some pretty conflicting underlying messages.


Nonetheless, this ended up making for a much more provocative film than I was expecting, which makes it easy to recommend. Who knew that yet another zombie movie could still provide so much food for thought? Uh, a lot of us, actually, but it's a pleasure to see the trend continue.

Recommended Release: Wyrwood

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Jason R (5 years ago) Reply

The book was excellent. I did not see the ending coming, it was a surprise.

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