Director: Colm McCarthy
Writers: Mike Carey (novel), Mike Carey (screenplay)
Stars: Gemma Arterton, Glenn Close, Sennia Nanua
A zombie film that really is quite different.
Google ‘not your typical/usual zombie movie’ and you’ll see a comprehensive list of reviews including Fido, Warm Bodies and World War Z. The genre is overrun with fresh takes on the undead. But what if there was a story that wasn’t a radical departure, yet offered a a deeper explanation for their being? A rationale? A purpose?
Let’s consider Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. It’s a type of fungus. Yes, seriously. I’m going somewhere with this. In 1859 British naturalist Alfred Russel discovered and named this insect-pathogenising fungus.
According to Wikipedia:
O. unilateralis, also referred to as a zombie fungus, infects ants of the Camponotini tribe, with the full pathogenesis being characterized by alteration of the behavioral patterns of the infected ant. Infected hosts leave their canopy nests and foraging trails for the forest floor, an area with a temperature and humidity suitable for fungal growth; they then use their mandibles to affix themselves to a major vein on the underside of a leaf, where the host remains until its eventual death.The process leading to mortality takes 4–10 days, and includes a reproductive stage where fruiting bodies grow from the ant’s head, rupturing to release the fungus’s spores.
In other words there’s this horrid fungus that releases spores which infects an ant, essentiallly turning it into a zombie. The infected ant then climbs to the highest point it can, latches itself on until it rots to death from the inside, all the while this spore is growing and eating the ant’s brain until it bursts, causing more spores to fall and infect more ants. Nice, innit?
Back to the film.
The Girl With All The Gifts starts on a military base where several children, with their heads and bodies bound to wheelchairs, are brought from their cells and placed in a classroom by a couple of very creeped-out soldiers. Helen Justineau (Arterton) is their teacher. She’s patient and compassionate. When one of the kids, Melanie (Nanua), asks if they could get stories instead of maths, a reluctant but sympathetic Miss Justineau agrees to contiue reading the story of Pandora’s Box from their last lesson.
When Melanie’s sensitivity and insight overwhelms her teacher, she responds by placing a comforting hand on the girl’s tightly restrained head and several military personnel burst into the classroom, pointing their guns at the children. Sgt. Eddie Parks (Considine) lectures Helen about the dangers of touching the kids and reminds her of the consequences. It’s at this point we realise what the fuss is about and why burly blokes in uniforms with loaded machine guns are so terrified of these kids.
To show the teacher why touching is forbidden, Parks rolls up his sleeve, licks his arm and places in centimetres from one of the children. Within seconds the kid is a slobbering, snarling, animalistic beast, biting at the air and struggling in its restraints. These kids were never here to be taught. These things were in the classroom to be studied, to see how quickly they learn.
Also on the base is Dr Caldwell (Close) who is researching a cure by performing experiments on the children. Caldwell plays a game of curiosity with Melanie, asking her to pick a number between 1 and 20. Melanie chooses 13 and the next day cell 13 is empty.
When Caldwell asks Melanie to solve the riddle of Schrödinger’s cat the girl tries to answer the question using logic to find out if the cat is alive or dead. Caldwell informs Melanie that the common answer to the question is that the cat MUST be thought of as both alive AND dead. The following day, Caldwell again asks Melanie to choose a number and is surprised that she picks her own cell. Melanie is brought to Caldwell’s lab for experimentation when the Doctor remarks that the girl had to be sure of why the children were being taken to the lab, drawing comparison from the Schrödinger question.
Miss Justineau bursts into the lab just as Caldwell is about to remove Melanie’s brain, but is incapacitated by Caldwell.
Hundreds of ‘hungries’ storm the base as Calwell tries to resume the procedure and Melanie is able to escape. As Helen leaves the lab, through droves of countless zombies, she’s restrained by two soldiers whom Melanie attacks with awesome viciousness. Helen, Melanie, Sgt. Parks and Dr. Calwell escape in an armoured van, along with a couple of squaddies.
There is, thankfully, a shift in tone from here, otherwise we’d be comparing this movie 28 Later.
As we discover what Melanie is, we focus less on the scrambling, aimless hungries and more on the enemy within. Here is an amiable, friendly and helpful little girl or, at least, an approximation of one. Melanie isn’t a hungry. She’s something different. She was infected in utero, eating her way out of her mother. But here she’s willing to roam through the abandoned streets for food, supplies and a way to avoid the hungries, not so much for the good Doctor or Sgt. Parks, but for her teacher who she cares for.
This is where we find the film’s message. It’s revealed that the cause of the infection is exactly like the fungus which turns ants into zombies.
The hungries are merely carriers of the fungus, helping it to spread and germinate. It becomes clear that there is a question of what kind of like is most valued. Dr Caldwell is first seen as cold and merciless, butchering children in order to better understand the infection. From her point of view, she’s trying to preserve life. Human life. Melanie is something new. It doesn’t necessarily mean that her life is any less relevant. She’s a creature of instict trying to survive. She’s animalistic but also shows compassion and empathy. Are we less beastly in our pursuit to be the dominant species on the planet. Have we ever been?
Director Colm McCarthy is hugely successful in delivering a zombie action drama which asks questions, explains the cause and effect of the infection and makes it look tragic and beautiful in equal measure. The always excellent Considine does more than deliver an archetypal squaddie in the face of danger. He offers real depth and insight into a man in a unique situation. Glenn Close is exceptional as the pragmatic doctor. Her Dr. Caldwell is calculated but desperate, yet always managing to keep her personal feelings from doing what is right in her mind. Gemma Arterton is a joy to watch as the compassionate and caring teacher but never ventures into maudlin sentimentality. Newcomer Sennia Nanua is wonderful as the subtly creepy but ultimately optimistic Melanie. It would be great to see more from her in the future.