Small Screen Quarantine – The Girl With All The Gifts

How do you put a new spin on a zombie movie after all this time? How about rather than lace the screenplay with a few moral and ethical questions you lace zombie themes in and out of a film that exists to ask the questions? The synopsis, from Wikipedia:

The Girl with All the Gifts is a 2016 British post-apocalyptic science fiction horror film directed by Colm McCarthy and written by Mike Carey, based on his 2014 novel of the same name. Starring Gemma ArtertonPaddy ConsidineGlenn Close, and Sennia Nanua, the film depicts a dystopian future following a breakdown of society after most of humanity is wiped out by a fungal infection. The plot focuses on the struggle of a scientist, a teacher, and two soldiers who embark on a journey of survival with a special young girl named Melanie.”

Spoiler alert: Melanie is a zombie, and that is actually a big deal. Children are generally added to zombie films for two reasons. On the one hand they are often included in bands of uninfected survivors to represent human vulnerability, and on the other they are written in to symbolize both what was lost and what could be the key to the future. On the other, zombie children are often added to sharpen the shock and horror. Melanie is in fact a zombie and she does represent a key to the future but she is also sweet and beautiful deepening the moral dilemma because everything beautiful about her has to be destroyed for human survival. She exists in the film as a potential sacrifice to sovereign gods of humanity’s continued existence. That’s what these films are always about, right? It’s the dominion of humanity at all costs. Problem is it’s more unthinkable to destroy what is obviously a perfect child than it would be to axe a rotting monster. Melanie is the most human, and perhaps the only unspoiled human in the film, except she is not untainted, obviously.

But she is innocent, despite an invasive fungus that gives her a craving for living flesh. That’s the factor that has Doctor Caldwell, played by Cruella De Vil… er… Glenn Close to say, “She only presents as a child.” Caldwell intimates at several points that Melanie isn’t even human and that she is The Walking Dead. It ain’t so simple, is it.

This child really is the hero of the film, as well as the moral center. She rescues humans throughout the story, beginning with her compassionate teacher, Miss Justineau. She rescues the soldiers who held guns on her and called her an abortion. She rescues the scientist who is leading her to sacrifice… in the name of humanity… in the name of all that is good, right? There’s an interesting exchange between Sergeant Parks and Miss Justineau, who had been part of the experiments on Melanie and her similarly afflicted classmates:

Justineau: I’m not a good person.

Parks: I’ve never met a good person or a bad one. You just do whatever’s in you to do.

Justineau: So no one’s ever responsible for anything?

Parks: Responsible to who?

You just do whatever’s in you to do. Short and sweet and so many films in the zombie survival genre come down to that. Survival comes down to that. Self-preservation comes down to that, but let’s face it, outside of a zombie attack self-preservation and survival are usually two different things altogether? What exactly is being preserved and for whom and at what cost? That’s part and parcel of the genre going way back to, for example, the redneck’s blithely and casually butchering zombie’s in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It came very easily to them. They enjoyed it. Not so much for Vincent Price in The Last Man On Earth, later reprised by Charlton Heston in Omega Man and finally Will Smith in I Am Legend. They all came to realize in their individual films that all the creatures were doing was trying to survive. The zombies were neither evil nor good. They were just doing what they had to do to get by. Who the monsters were really just came down to perspective.

The lines are blurred further in The Girl With All the Gifts. Put a beautiful child’s face on the said evil and there is no person with any kind of a heart watching the film that could disagree with her when she says of the “Hungries”, “They just want to live.”

Dr. Caldwell finally acknowledges Melanie’s humanity but is still willing to go through with anything it takes to save herself and what human civilization used to be. The exchange though was heartbreaking and jarring. The poor child was only coming to an awareness of her own being. She didn’t know what she was.

Melanie: So we’re alive?

Caldwell: You’re alive. (emphasizing you’re, still unable to see the bigger picture)

Melanie: Then why should it be us who dies for you?

And there really is no good answer for that. Why, indeed? Who should be the collateral damage to save someone or save their way of life? Melanie, in the end, has the best answer.

Parks: It’s all over.

Melanie: It’s not all over. It’s just not yours anymore.

Make yourself a list of empires that fell since the Neanderthals disappeared or were subsumed by Cro-Magnon Man and Homo sapiens. It’s endless and will continue that way. Man, as we know ourselves, will most likely be gone at some point for one reason or another. Deep down we all know that and hence our continued obsession with Armageddon and the moral imperative we put on our own survival as reflected in our art. Michael Carey, who wrote the screenplay for Girl With All the Gifts based on his own book, totally flipped the narrative on this one. He did so by telling the truth. There’s no reason not to accept that we’re not going to be here forever. The reason for our demise is still up for grabs, but it’s going to happen. Some of us will evolve to the next stage. The rest will die. We will fight it and maybe stay aboard a bit longer, but we’re done. Our empires will fall. Our dominance over the planet will follow. Take a bit of pressure of yourself and accept that it’s not a question of good or evil.

Hell, there used to be dinosaurs.

But Girl With All the Gifts is a beautiful movie, not without flaws, but it’s beautiful. I got more out of it than from 9 seasons of that other thing. With that, I need to get off the undead thing for now. I’ve wrung about as much analysis out of it as I’m capable of. At some point down the road maybe I’ll take it all out and write it as one comprehensive piece. For now it’s just killing time and thinking aloud and trying to get something out of all this downtime. It’s keeping me level.

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