The Girl with All the Gifts opens with one of the most intense and disturbing sequences I’ve ever seen onscreen. Children kept in a bare, gray prison like Guantanamo Bay, lit only by harsh fluorescence; given disgusting things to eat; shouted at by adult guards with cruelty in their voices; strapped into wheelchairs à la Hannibal Lecter; pushed with careful, fearful precision to be lined up in a grim classroom for their daily lessons… and we dread to discover what those are to consist of. It’s a nightmare scenario, apparently an institutional abuse of children. But their teacher, Miss Justineau is more than kindly, not at all the despot you might expect in such an environment, though her military fatigues are a bit disconcerting, because we know she’s part of the power structure here. Far more bewildering, young Melanie, around 10 years old, seems happy and eager to learn, smiling cheerily from around the headgear that keeps her immobilized.
The unsettling mood set by director Colm McCarthy — a TV veteran (Peaky Blinders, Doctor Who, Sherlock) making his feature debut — is only just beginning to unfurl. This is science-fiction horror set in a dystopian near future, and it will ring bells that resound of everything from 28 Days Later to Day of the Triffids to Lord of the Flies and beyond. But for every echo of previous examples of great British SF here, Girl is staking out its own place — a totally fresh and unique one — in a subgenre that I would have said was well played out. It’s a subgenre that dehumanizes human beings — sometimes to offer commentary on the current state of our culture, more often merely to excuse its own brutality — and Girl rehumanizes it ways that are both extraordinarily moving and deeply unnerving. This is one of the most humane works of speculative fiction I’ve come across on film. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t going to make a deliberate attempt to broaden the idea of what “human” and “humane” mean, and in ways that may be very, very uncomfortable.
I am intentionally being vague here because so much of the wonder and the horror and the sheer brilliance of Girl comes in not being able to anticipate anything about where it’s going or what it wants you to feel along the way. (The less you know about it going in, the better. Avoid all trailers and ads if you possibly can. Probably wait to read the novel this is based on — author M.R. (Mike) Carey adapted it for the screen himself — until after you’ve seen the movie. But if you’re any sort of genre fan, absolutely do not miss it.) There is imagery here unlike any you will have encountered before; it’s not a spoiler to say that we are, for lack of a better word, midapocalypse here, and the film’s vision of a London that has been abandoned by civilized humanity for at least a decade is both chilling and poignant. There are extrapolations of familiar SF ideas that are breathtakingly innovative, ones that in retrospect seem obvious and yet ones that I cannot recall coming across before. If there is a cliché Girl can flip the script on, it will do that… and then it will do it again. Girl takes you on the sort of journey that movies seem to have given up on, one full of surprises that aren’t about cheap plot twists or cheaper sentiment but about crafting a vividly told tale in a fully realized alternate world populated by characters with richly conceived stories of their own. Those backgrounds are only hinted at, but when those hints get dropped, they blossom into whole new worlds of meaning and emotion.
These characters are unforgettable: they will be seared into your imagination the moment you meet them, and then every moment with them will only deepen what feels like a real relationship with them. Twelve-year-old newcomer Sennia Nanua makes Melanie totally endearing, even when part of our brains are telling us we shouldn’t be liking her, partly by maintaining her childlike demeanor — sweet, smart curiosity and playfulness — even in horrific situations. (Well, they are situations that seem horrific to us, and not to Melanie. Some of the horror here comes from how not everyone agrees on what is horrific.) Gemma Arterton (The Voices, Runner Runner) as Miss Justineau finds depths of empathy that at first seem at odds with her character’s situation, then later get even more fascinatingly complicated. Paddy Considine (Miss You Already, Child 44) brings extraordinary, subtle depth to a solider whose emotional response to Melanie changes over the course of the film in ways he surely would never have deemed possible. Glenn Close (Warcraft, Anesthesia) is powerfully challenging as a doctor studying Melanie (and the other children), and breathes real life into a character who is the embodiment of the moral dilemmas at the heart of the tale.
The Girl with All the Gifts is a movie to reignite your love of movies, if you’ve despaired of seeing anything different or unexpected amidst a sea of tired sameness. It is a movie that demands to be taken seriously — a demand it is effortless to give in to — when so much genre storytelling is so easily dismissed as empty schlock. It is a movie with something to say about the biggest questions of all — what does it mean to be human? what price survival? — and answers that will haunt you. It is a movie that is everything we go to the movies for.
A shorter version of this review appeared first at The List.