It’s Valentines Day and what better time to kick off the first of Febuary’s Zombie festival Reviews with a look at the Zombie Apocalypse from the British viewpoint with director Colm McCarthy’s take on the novel by M.R. Carey, “The Girl With All The Gifts”. And… as an added bit of fun, it seems justly appropriate to invite our fellow blogging friend Stephen from Gweilo Ramblings along to share the British perspective on all the zombie hijinks to be had. 😉
Thanks for having me again Miyuki, it’s been way way too long since we have had a crossover, and whilst this might not fit my usually review M.O., I can’t help but think it was a pretty perfect choice.
Our synopsis goes like this: “In the near future, a strange fungus infection has transformed nearly everyone into a thoughtless, flesh-eating monsters called “hungries”. 10 years after the infestation ran amok and nearly destroyed the world, an obsessed scientist, a dedicated teacher, and a military base full of nervous soldiers conduct experiments on a strange group of dangerous children seemingly immune to the worst effects of fungus. But then the base is overrun by the hungry hordes and they are all forced to undertake a journey to seek shelter and possibly save humanity from complete extinction”
Zombie kiddies? Hmmmm? Definitely haven’t seen that very often, eh? It’s always nice to see somebody trying to use our old friends, the zombies, and take them in a new direction. Shake up the preconceptions and find some new ideas, maybe find a way to weave an important message into an otherwise well-worn genre. Neko’s all for that, as long as they don’t neglect all the crazy flesh-eating zombie action we all know and love. Gotta have your priorities… 😉
Zombies. Ever since they’ve shambled into first the movies and then the collective consciousness of us all, zombies have been the stock characters that could stand in and allow themselves to be used as metaphors for just about everything. Xenophobia, fear of the “outsider”, fears of contamination and disease, body image, communists, aliens, loss of control of our lives, fear of the ultimate cost of technology or science run unchecked. You name it. There’s almost always an underlying message somewhere in the flesh munching carnage if you just listen. So what’s the “message” that’s woven into this one? Well… if you’ve taken a peek at the Trailer already, then obviously the simplest answer is the question: “What is it that makes you human?”. But it’s more than that really… and therein lies the real meat of our story.
To my mind, you can either do Zombies as a straight-up horror, or use them as a metaphor for something else. Now mixing it with the “Killer Kid” genre is a great idea (think back to “Night of the Living Dead”, and for me the most horrific moment was the little girl eating her father and murdering her Mum).
Our story gets underway sometime in the undefined “near future”. A deadly fungal infection… that crazy one that really exists in the Amazon and turns ants into mindless automatons… has jumped species and reduced the bulk of humanity worldwide into mindless things that exist now only to propagate the spread of the fungus to any and all uninfected. Naturally that means they have become savage cannibalistic zombie things that the survivors have named “the hungries”. Technically… they really aren’t dead… or undead… or whatever, but for the purposes of our story, “If it quacks like a duck…”. You get the idea. 😉
The fungal infection is a smart bit of real world creepiness, although I have seen a few people suggest this is a rip off of the Computer Game “The Last of Us” which uses a very similar premise. I am giving this one a pass though as it really is all background to a more cerebral story.
But… it seems.. there is a small group of hybrid children who do uncontrollably crave living flesh but still seem to retain the ability to think and reason. Or maybe not… That’s the real question. Most of the soldiers… and more than a few of the scientists… all think that their seemingly rational reasoning intellect is merely all some programmed instinct. A side effect of the fungal infestation in their brains that is letting them mimic human behavior to just make it easier to get close to normal humans. The better to eat them up, you see….
The children are all prisoners at some unnamed army base in the Home Counties, under constant siege by hordes of the infected beyond the perimeter fences where they are being studied and subjected to experiments in the hopes of maybe synthesizing a vaccine for the fungal outbreak. Until then, they get watched… and educated… in the hopes of determining just exactly what they are. Human or zombie?
This is the bit of the story that makes me sad that the marketing of the film somewhat gave away the secret of these kids. If you don’t know what is going on in the first 20 minutes or so of the film I think it would be quite mind-blowing to see that first kid salivate at the smell of available flesh.
Our film’s main protagonist Melanie (played by Sennia Nanua) is smart. Really, really smart… a genius actually. And as the story starts, she’s just beginning to wonder about who and what she is. Raised since birth under lock and key and treated at all times like a cross between a potentially rabid dog and Hannibal Lecter, she knows that she’s dangerous. Understands why she has to be confined. Knows that she’s somehow different from the soldiers and scientists but doesn’t quite understand why. At least not yet.
Naturally she’s been isolated and only one ray of light shines into her otherwise miserable life. Her teacher. Miss Helen Justineau (played by Gemma Arterton) the civilian specialist assigned to teach and study the children. She’s the one person on the base who treats Melanie and the others like actual children… who has come to believe that despite the others fears, that they really are human beings. Melanie has the deepest textbook schoolgirl crush on her. Would like to be her friend and protect her from all “the monsters”… even herself if necessary.
Melanie is a quite fantastic creation, a wonderful mix of childlike and otherworldly, bought to live amazingly by the young Sennia Nanua. The casting was so important here, because in lesser hands I am not sure you’d be able to buy into the later events. She’s not like normal kids, but he naivety and optimism is so bloody endearing!
Problem is… Melanie and the others are living on borrowed time. The scientific leader of the base, Dr. Caroline Caldwell (played by Glenn Close) thinks that the symbiotic hybrids are the key to her vaccine cure. All she need to do is dissect enough of their brains to figure it out. That’s gonna be a problem… especially since brilliant Melanie seems to have the best chance to have just the right brain in perfect symbiotic balance for the task.
And the soldiers? Well… for the most part, these guys are just nervous trigger happy types who would kill one of the kids if they look at them funny. Sgt. Eddie Parks (played by Paddy Considine) has them under firm control… and thanks to an ugly incident in his past is in no hurry to let himself be fooled by the kids at all.
Parks is the other great character to me. Considine is one of Britain’s national treasures, albeit usually in small character-based films. But his arc during the film allows his character to grow and turn from hate-figure to probably the most sympathetic character of all.
Eventually of course, the base gets overrun as they always do in these stories, right as little Melanie was moments away from dissection. Breaking loose, she manages to save Miss Justineau from being killed by a couple of panicked soldiers before being saved themselves from the Hungries by Sgt. Parks and his men along with Dr Caldwell. With no contact with higher authority and nowhere else to go, our little group flees in an armored vehicle. Against his instincts, Parks lets Melanie stay with them, bound and confined to a plexiglass gimp mask, only because Dr. Caldwell insists she’s invaluable to her research.
On the whole, the film stays away from the big set pieces (probably partially to do with budget), but popping it so early in the film was an interesting take on things – usually films build up to the fences coming down and Zombies taking over – but the point here is to get our cast down to the bare minimum for the actual story that it wants to tell. Saying that, the first hint we get that all is going to hell outside the base is really well done.
They have to reach their main base. But to get there they must travel straight through the ruins of London and it’s army of infested. Thank goodness they’ve got Melanie. The one among them who can safely walk the world without fearing the threats posed by the hungries.
As the journey progresses, Melanie starts learning more about the world she’s been shut away from, one she’s never seen or known and more importantly those with her start to see her as more than just a monster, something to fear, but instead a very real little girl aching for acceptance. It’s interesting to see her come to terms with her growing feeling for her companions and learning to accept the frightening truth of her cannbalistic instincts to devour them on occasion. I wish there had been a bit more of the interaction between her and Miss Justineau to help cement their growing connection, but unfortunately there’s a whole lot of zombie stuff to shoe-horn into our story, so they kinda drop the ball a bit on that. A shame really, since more than anything, it’s obvious that Melanie wants what she’s never known… a mother’s love. It would have been nice to see that kind of feeling get developed and explored, but no… there’s just not enough screen time.
I totally agree with you here. Clearly there is much more going on between Justineau and Melanie that the film has time to deal with, and I suspect this is more dealt with in Carey’s Novel of the same name.
Eventually she learns her true origin… the unborn child of an infected mother shielded from the worst of the effects of the infestation by the super immune system babies have. Unfortunately she also finds out the grisly fact that she ate her way into the world through her mother’s own womb… Eeeewwwwhhhh!!
Yeah, that one is all kinds of primal-level wrong. And cleverly we learn it in the abandoned hospital. This is actually a little bit different to the source novel (although that’s a bit confusing – Carey wrote the script and the novel at the same time), but it’s a rare example where the pruning of a story to fit inside a couple of hours actually enhances the story.
All this leads to a confrontation with a horde of feral children in the ruins… children like her, but living like animals in a “Lord of the Flies” kind of primitive tribal state. She needs to protect the others, some of whom have started to become her friends, but she feels for the poor kids living without someone like her beloved teacher to show them love, teach them to be better than mere savages.
I wasn’t totally blown away with the depiction of the feral children (little too much like “Mad Max 3” for me), although the fact they were language-less savages made a lot of sense.
Eventually the group discovers that the fungus is starting to prepare to enter a new stage of its life cycle. A massive growth caused by huge numbers of the infected succumbing to their infestation and merging into a single mass capable of producing the spore pods that, when they finally break, will spread the infection airborne and finish of the remainder of the human survivors. Dr Caldwell can’t let that happen… not when she’s sooooo close to a vaccine.
Now we get the real question of our film. Does humanity have the right to survive at any cost? What makes them any more worthy of living than Melanie and those like her? What if Melanie and the children are the answer? Not surviving as humans but as hybid symbiotes immune to further infestation and able to deal with the hungries without fear? But…. if that is the case, what about Miss Justineau? Is there any place for her or any normal human in Melanie’s life if it turns out the world now truly does belong to the symbiotes?
That’s pretty much the big moral question that fills the final act of our film, and Neko can’t really tell you how that goes without spoiling things but good. You’ll just have to watch it and find out how it goes all on your own. 😉
It all indeed leads up to this, and this is why Melanie has to be a genius in order to process what is going on in this new world. These are big questions, and the answer goes a different way than we might suspect. But yeah, I agree, let’s keep this one wrapped in spoiler tape.
All in all I felt this was a pretty strong film. If it has any major flaws, it’s that they open up so many interesting ideas throughout the story that it’s ultimately impossible to adequately address them all in its short runtime. New actress Sennia Nanua is excellent throughout. I wish she could have been given those extra scenes to help sell Melanie’s personal journey from “monster” to “girl”. I would have liked some interaction between the captive hybrids too to accentuate the difference between Melanie and the others, show just how special and unique she really was. It’s the sort of thing that makes me wish this had been done as a mini-series or something for British TV just to let all this sort of great character stuff evolve. (Hey… Psssst!! BBC… looking for a TV series that could give Britain it’s own hit ala “The Walking Dead”? This could be it… I’m serious… It just needs a bit of tweaking to modify the ending a bit and make for more time to play out the story. Go ahead and make it, and we die-hard zombie fans will watch…)
I know what you mean. Most of my readers know that I am not really a fan of any film that stretches much beyond the 2 hour mark, but I did feel a little short changed by the brevity of this one. It had so much more to say if given a little time to breathe. Sadly, although British genre TV is in a really good place at present, I am not sure the thoughtful themes in the book/film would have survived the sometimes glossy and modern look and feel of a prime-time mini-series. Also, this was a low budget film – TV shows are darn expensive.
In general… I’d say this one deserves a strong 4 “Meows” out of 5. It’s a good film… could have been a great film with a few tweaks. It’s a zombie film that really didn’t need to be “zombie” all the time with a nice “coming of age” story at it’s heart. Even my sweetie Carolyn liked it, and she’s not anywhere as near the big Zombie Movie fan this wee lady is. The Region 2 UK release is pretty good, coming with a nice “Making of” feature if not much else, but perfectly adequate for this Catgirl’s movie watching needs. Sure… sure… it’s coming out on a Region 1 disc in a month or so, but when has this wee lady ever had the patience to wait? 😉
I’m with you, a solid 4 out of 5 for me. I’ve got some quibbles with parts of it, but it’s just such a smart film, well acted, with a stunning central performance. I actually thought the R2 DVD was a little disappointing, the “Making Of” was nice but It did all feel a bit of a rush job. If the R1 release has some more extras (like a commentary with the director and Mike Carey) I’ll double dip for sure. So I am calling it a total win, and officially the film we have reviewed together that we both have enjoyed the most. Thanks for having me back again, and let’s not leave it so long next time!
So anyways… that’s it for this time out. Hope you enjoyed both mine and Stephen’s ramblings and until next time, “Meow, meow, and shoot em’ in the head!!” 🙂
Trailer? But of course… I’d never forget one of those… 😉