By 2009, the zombie genre was getting a little overdeveloped, but that year, South Carolina scientist Kim Fleming discovered Ophiocordyceps unilateralis sensu lato, a parasitic fungus that targets the central nervous systems of ants, essentially hijacking them and controlling them to do the bidding of the fungus, not the ant colony. A horrifying as the concept of zombie ants with blooms of freaky fungus sprouting from their heads may be, the idea really took over writers’ imaginations, who adapted the concept for a few different fresh approaches to the zombie story. One of these was a 2016 British post-apocalypse story called the Girl with All the Gifts (adapted from the 2014 novel of the same name), an unusually moving and affecting tale of the end of the world in which the zombie plague sweeping the planet isn’t so much a metaphor for society’s shortcomings as it is a warning that there are biological forces at work that could crush us as easily as we might step on a zombified ant.
The story—which is best enjoyed by those who know nothing of it—involves a young British girl named Melanie who is imprisoned in some kind of high-security laboratory, along with around 30 other kids about her age. Every day, soldiers take Melanie from her cell, restrain her and do not interact with her despite her perpetually friendly, intelligent and polite efforts to start conversation. They wheel her along with all the other kids to a classroom where a teacher named Justineau works with them all on a range of subjects, as if they are all attending a form of endless, mandatory SAT prep. When a soldier named Sgt. Parks suspects Justineau is getting too close and comfortable with her students—especially Melanie—he spits on his arm and wipes off the special ointment that had been there to blocking his scent. And as soon as the kids can smell him, they all turn into mindless, amped-up cannibals, bug-eyed, teeth-clacking, harness-straining. They are no longer sweet children. They are hungries, and apparently, the world belongs to them now thanks to global, pandemic-like fungal outbreak. If Justineau is going to understand the problem, she needs to understand special subjects like Melanie, who is clearly smarter than all the rest, and in whose very unusual brain might be the key to ending this zombie plague once and for all. But nothing goes according to plan, and when chaos begins to reign over this story, which it does soon and swiftly, we begin to see why these solders are so interested in Melanie…and why Melanie begins to see why she is so important to the rest of the world.
That is not much to go on, plotwise, and it only covers the first 20 minutes or of things. And even then, it is a bare description, because The Girl with All the Gifts is best a story that is enjoyed cold. It’s fine to know it’s kind of a zombie movie. It’s fine to know that the zombie plague is caused by a huge fungal outbreak. But those are just premise notes. The real magic here is the story and the characters who drive it. Melanie, the titular girl with all the gifts, a hungry who seems like so much more. Justineau, the compassionate mentor who wants to protect Melanie at all costs, even if it means her life. Parks, the no-nonsense soldier who is tasked with protecting a little girl who might be humanity’s savior or its destroyer. And Caldwell, a senior scientist who seems to know exactly how much of a chance there really is to save the world, and who seems at peace with sacrificing her own humanity if it means saving everyone else’s. This is a story of perfectly blended action pieces, suspense and character drama, all pointing to a huge tonal payoff that makes this not just an satisfying tale of apocalypse, but the rare kind of movie that transcends its genre.
The Girl with All the Gifts never seems to waste a single frame of energy, so as a result, there are plenty of memorable moments within it. Two especially stand out: the first being the scene when Melanie gets a chance to see what the outside world is really like, and the second being a conversation between two characters at the end of the movie that underscores how, in every extinction-level event, there are still winners for those able to inherit a much-changed world. But the moment of truth comes from neither of these wonderful scenes. Rather, it’s in the very beginning, after Parks verbally abuses Melanie’s entire class, and in a writing assignment later, Melanie incorporates some of the words of that abuse into an otherwise lovely story. Melanie’s use of her newfound vocabulary is incorrect; the kind of mistake one makes when trying to make use of a word heard just enough to guess at its context, but not enough to know for sure. The look on Justineau’s face as she listens to Melanie read her story taps a deep well of pathos for us as we understand that Melanie might be a monster, but she is also an innocent little kid, and a person with incredible gifts at a time when humanity needs all the help it can get. Parks isn’t wrong; getting too close to any of these children is dangerous. But neither is Justineau when she insists that Melanie deserves more than what her handlers intend to give her. And as for Melanie herself, we see in her the conflict between human and hungry that has turned the rest of the world upside down. She knows she is a monster. And she makes no apologies for it. Why should she? She had no choice in being what she is. Just in how she uses the gifts she’s got. For they are great, indeed. And they will most definitely change the world. There is no shame in that.