I caught this film with my girlfriend the last day it was available on HBO Max a while ago, and it’s taken me some time to organize my thoughts and to process just exactly what happened in this film, and what I think the filmmakers were trying to do with it. It’s based on a 2013 book by the same name that is one of my girlfriend’s favorites, and it focuses on a dystopian future in which humanity is at war with a fungal infection that can turn people into zombies.
The film focuses on Melanie (Sennia Nanua), who is a second-generation child infectee of the fungus, who does crave human flesh when she is not medicated and has superhuman strength, but unlike first-generation infectees, she retains her intelligence, as the fungus has formed a symbiotic relationship with her body, rather than overrunning it like first-generation zombies, or as they call them, “Hungries” (seriously, what’s wrong with the word “zombie”? It’s what they are).
The film takes its time unraveling the background of the world, as its opening scenes take place in a compound in which Melanie and other test subjects are being held, flanked at all times by soldiers led by Sergeant Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine), though the whole research project is run by Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close), who is rigid, cold and uncaring, and will do anything to find a way to end the fungal apocalypse. At the compound, Melanie and the other children form a special bond with Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), their teacher who is one of the only people that shows them compassion and sees them as more than monsters.
This film could have taken place entirely in that compound, and it probably would have been a better film for it, but it eventually gets overrun by non-intelligent hungries to mix things up, even though it does defy the internal logic of the film; a scene prior to this, hungries are stopped by simple barbed wire fencing, and they are shown to have no capabilities of coordinating amongst themselves, but I’ll give the film this one. It is based on a YA book, and YA fiction does have this innate need to completely flip the table from which its narrative sits over for the sake of upsetting the status quo they’ve set up — not doing so would risk their tale being too focused or even boring.
The rest of the film sees Melanie, Parks, Caldwell and Justineau trek though the British countryside before reaching London in hopes of finding supplies and a lab for Caldwell to continue her work. And since leaving the compound, Melanie does horrible, unforgiveable things, killing both people and animals, though she does stay loyal to Ms. Justineau and her group. And for the most part, it goes well, until they encounter a tribe of kids just like Melanie and she’s forced to kill their leader, and of course Caldwell betrays Justineau and Parks in order to take her research to an extreme.
And as you may have guessed by the headline of this review, Melanie does, in fact, commit genocide, as after the group encounters this huge tower of fungal spores that will only open if they’re set on fire, she does exactly that, killing everyone except Ms. Justineau, who somehow managed to stay in a sealed lab. And the worst part is that the film still tries to maintain Melanie’s innocence, as if she still has no concept of death after encountering so much of it. In fact, the film suggests that it might even be a good thing that humans are overrun by these spore zombies and zombie hybrids like Melanie, as they are humanity’s replacements?
Overall, this is a dreary, ugly film with incredible mixed and confusing messaging with a main character that we’re supposed to like despite her wanton murder and lack of any sense of empathy for what she’s done. I get that Melanie is a child, but I don’t think that excuses her glaring character flaws.
It is a shame because the cast is great overall, but the direction is cluttered at best and tone deaf and terrible at worst.
“The Girl with All the Gifts” (2016) gets a 4/10