Last night we went to our first film of the festival, The Girl with All the Gifts. Having only heard of it this week, I was going in pretty blind. I generally love Gemma Arterton (if you haven’t seen The Voices, go do yourself a favour) and anything post-apocalypic (even if its zombies…again) so I was happy to start our week of cinema-going with it.
Zombie movies have to work hard to appear fresh amid their many counterparts but McCarthy rises to the challenge, adapting a book of the same name. The focus on infected children alone is already unique (last year’s Cooties used children, but the film mostly existed to relish the shock of violence between its infected kids and their teachers). The film also begins after the main spread of infection has taken place, allowing the events of the movie to primarily centre on character dynamics rather than on gory action.
Initially, the movie gave me vibes of 2010’s Never Let Me Go, in the sense that the children are part of a bizarre daily routine that they accept because they know nothing else, while their keepers have to come to terms with the moral implications of their role in the children’s captivity and use for their own gain. Similar questions arise around what it means to be human and how far we will go to ensure survival.
When the credits rolled, I was left wondering what we are to make of an ending where the one consistently redeemable character ends up being the one trapped, alone, in a box, placed there by the character to which she had devoted herself to protect. Especially when the film insists throughout that after all the bad has been unleashed, what is left is hope (the story of Pandora figures largely, due to Miss Justineau’s penchant for reciting greek myths to her class).
Ultimately, the ending casts doubt on the audience’s carefully controlled perception of Melanie. The film’s trajectory follows Melanie on a campaign tour to win over her captors through ceaseless enthusiasm and cleverness. The audience is the first stop, experiencing the first twenty minutes of the film through Melanie’s perspective. She greets the soldiers who come to roughly deliver her from her cell with enthusiasm and by name; as she is rolled–completely restrained and berated by her caretakers–down the bunker hallways, she continues this practice with every passing gun-slinging soldier. Further, the movie takes its time to pull the audience into Melanie’s world so as to develop empathy for her. For example: though the film contains some impressive shots of the “hungries” (as the film terms its zombies) overrunning the base, utilizing a huge cast of extras, the massive attack seems only peripheral to the story. Rather than focus on the wall of hungries swarming the base’s outer fence-of which the audience only gets a brief glance-the camera hones in on Dr. Caldwell transporting her subject to the lab. Even when we are thrust directly into the fray, the camera sways disorientedly, reflecting Melanie’s confusion as she escapes, and finally focusses solely on her orange-clad form running through the field as violence erupts around her.
The film also takes its time to capture Melanie’s wonder of a world she’s never been exposed to: discovering velcro, encountering abandoned houses and laughing at seemingly odd devices (like a doggie door), excitedly playing with the emergency radio she’s been allowed to carry, and reading to one of the soldiers who accompany her when he can’t sleep one night. Twelve year old newcomer Sennia Nanua is mesmerizing to watch. The whole film, consequently, seems constructed so that Melanie’s treatment appears unjust, so that she appears human. The tension that McCarthy so deftly develops is not solely focussed on the threat of attack, but on the possibility of Melanie’s redemption.
Rather than provide essential precaution-the film later proves that a combination of regular feeding and “blocker” will keep the children under control-the degree of distance that the facility staff places between them and the children only serves to absolve them of guilt for sacrificing another human in service of a cure. This is, of course, why after prolonged interaction with Melanie, the remaining survivors almost completely lower their guard, allowing her independence and freedom from restraints. As even Dr. Caldwell eventually concedes, the children are alive, not monster but human. Her admission provides a sense of vindication to an audience who believes they were alone in seeing Melanie’s inherently benign nature.
But when the last scene shows us a beaming Melanie cheerfully demanding stories from her now captive teacher, her behaviour no longer seems charming. It is disturbing. She is not only capable of the same treatment of which she has been on the receiving end, she doesn’t even detect the role reversal. She does it with a smile, unironically hanging the same hopeful postcards, with which she once papered her own cell, onto Miss Justineau’s window. Suddenly it is hard not to feel had, like the film has set out to manipulate you all along. It is a bait and switch on the level of the ending of Ex Machina.
Now, Dr. Caldwell’s warning that the fungus might be who is truly responsible for the children’s actions, even while the majority of their actions are harmless, appears prescient. Like ivy wrapped around an oak tree, as Caldwell remarks-calling to mind the visually remarkable mall set with building and zombie alike draped in hanging vines and moss-the infection lies dormant, existing in perfect symbiosis until it is threatened. It presents itself in Melanie’s question: “Then why should we die for you?” She speaks not just for herself and the other children, but as a plural unit, child and infection.
For that reason, the ending really worked for me. It made me think harder about what I had seen before and whether I should consider it in a different light. I like that a character who is so cheerful and kind that I forget all of the rules of previous zombies film and learn to stop doubting her can suddenly appear to have been manipulating the audience all along.
Also notable: The score for the movie, composed by Chilean Cristobal Tapia de Veer, was phenomenal. It drives the whole movie, offering tense instrumental strains that suddenly morph into haunting human shrieks (I was reminded of another score I loved this year from The VVitch, composed by Mark Korven), sometimes becoming almost tribal in its rhythmic beat, and once even cutting off altogether, the silence more terrifying than the noise. De Veer is also the composer for Humans, a show I have just began to watch. I’m only 2 episodes in, but after how much his score struck me, I’ll definitely be listening closer as I continue to watch.
Featured image courtesy of PBS via bookstr.com.