Colm McCarthy’s The Girl with All the Gifts is a tedious exercise in dystopian chic. The routinely structured script, adapted by Mike Carey from his own novel, follows a group of ideologically divergent survivors on the run from “hungries”—zombies that have more or less been snatched from the 28 Days Later playbook of undead athleticism. The twist here is that a young girl, Melanie (Sennia Nanua), plagued by a fungal infection that makes her crave human flesh still exhibits signs of rational human behavior and thought. She’s kept bound and masked, Hannibal Lector-style, at an army base in Britain where a few dozen children with her affliction are guarded and studied by Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close), who hopes to use her subjects to discover a vaccine.
McCarthy consistently defers to stock techniques for creating dread, such as a droning score, a visual palette of sickly greens and yellows, and a shooting style reminiscent of films ranging from Saving Private Ryan to Gamer but without either of those films’ precision or penchant for geometrically conceived stylization. The general lack of visceral panache would be at least partially admissible were The Girl with All the Gifts establishing a dystopia of unique circumstances; instead, the monologues given by Caldwell explicitly spell out only the highlights of this world in ruins. The film’s investment in characterization plays more undercooked than refractory, especially as Helen (Gemma Arterton), a teacher and the base’s only empathetic voice, is whittled into merely a chess piece for the script’s scene-to-scene expository needs once the action moves away from the base following its takeover by hungries.
Pastiche can work well when its component parts are filtered through the lens of something else, as in Resident Evil: Retribution, where a fusion of the slasher and war-film templates provides a means for director Paul W.S. Anderson to stage kinetic action set pieces. Anderson flattens characters into types not out of incompetence, but by shifting attention away from classical notions of narrative toward a revised take on the beleaguered possibilities of photographic realism in the era of digital filmmaking. That McCarthy doesn’t proffer a similar use of the zombie template here isn’t grounds on its own for criticism, but it is indicative of the film’s contentment with prevailing, even common, modes of cinematic expression.
Whereas Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men uses a futuristic setting to diagnose the bubbling racism of contemporary Europe through backgrounds replete with cages, border patrols, and propagandistic paraphernalia, The Girl with All the Gifts unfolds as a politically vacant, YA iteration of the same concept. That sense is heightened in the film’s back half, as the narrative devolves into a simplistic game of cat and mouse while the few remaining characters compete for possession of Melanie. Thus, in addition to being frustrating for its misreading of genre tropes, the film doubles down on its consequent inanity by substituting an intricate or at least mindful reconciliation between characters with a few routinely composed and edited doses of undead target practice. The film wants to have its flesh and eat it too, but even more damning is how little meat is on its bones to begin with.