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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

The Girl with All the Gifts movie review: I believe the children are our future…

The Girl with All the Gifts green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Stakes out its own fresh place in an SF subgenre that is well played out, and rehumanizes it ways that are both extraordinarily moving and deeply unnerving.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): desperate for stories about girls and women; big SF geek
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

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.

If there is a cliché The Girl with All the Gifts can flip the script on, it will do that… and then it will do it again.

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 filmtweet. 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.

White dudes are most definitely in the minority in The Girl with All the Gifts. That doesn’t hurt so much, now, does it?

White dudes are most definitely in the minority in The Girl with All the Gifts. That doesn’t hurt so much, now, does it?tweet

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 ittweet.) 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.

The Girl with All the Gifts demands to be taken seriously when so much genre storytelling is so easily dismissed as empty schlock.

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 moviestweet, 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.

Click here for my ranking of this and 2016’s other theatrical releases.

Click here for my ranking of this and 2017’s other theatrical releases.

green light 5 stars

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The Girl with All the Gifts (2016) | directed by Colm McCarthy
US/Can release: Feb 24 2017 (VOD Jan 26 2017)
UK/Ire release: Sep 23 2016

MPAA: rated R for disturbing violence/bloody images, and for language
BBFC: rated 15 (strong bloody violence, strong language)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Owen1120

    I highly recommend putting the book on your list- I really loved it. I’m so glad to hear that this film is so good, and I can’t believe there’s no word on a US release- not even a straight-to-iTunes dump.

  • Ralph

    So pleased to hear the movie is good – the book is one of the best I’ve read this year (and from my own experience similarly benefits from going in blind).

    What I can’t believe is that it’s only in reading this review I’ve realised that the author is the same chap that wrote my joint favourite in the urban fantasy genre (the Felix Castor series) as well as cutting his teeth on Constantine (the comic).

  • The book is already in my Kindle queue.

    I suspect this will get a limited US release later this autumn.

  • Siri Dennis

    It really irks me that they’ve chosen a white actress to play Helen Justineau – in the book she is explicitly black. I imagine her looking like Sophie Okonedo. Melanie is not only white, but extremely, extravagantly, whitely pale. Why can’t they respect the source material?

  • So, they swapped the races of the two major characters. Does it really make a difference? The representation remains the same.

  • Siri Dennis

    I think it does make a difference. If you have a chance to read the book I’d love to hear your view!

  • Can you explain what the difference is?

    Unlikely I’ll review the book. I have enough trouble keeping up with reviewing movies.

  • Owen1120

    I don’t think there really is a big difference. If the man to the right of Parks in your picture is Gallagher, then his race was also changed- in the book he was definitely Irish.

  • LaSargenta

    There are black people in Ireland. And there have been for a long time.

  • Owen1120

    Sorry about that, but I feel that my meaning was misinterpreted- he had a traditional Irish heritage, and is referred to as white in the book. It’s great that there is more representation in the film.

  • Danielm80

    The movie appears to have a U.S. release date–or several of them:


  • Going to DirectTV? Ugh. This means it won’t get a wide release. Dammit.

  • Dent

    I really liked this film, thanks for recommending it. One of the best of it’s genera.

  • Stacy Livitsanis

    Finally caught up with this one, and it’s tremendous, staggering, exhilarating. The second it finished I ordered the blu-ray and have told everyone I know to see it. Through the 21st century deluge of mediocre-to-horrible zombie films I’d abandoned the possibility of any new film set in a vaguely comparable milieu being any good, but this film single-handedly makes up for all the hours I wasted watching The Walking Dead before realising it was a lost cause.

    Your review does this film perfect justice, not unnecessarily revealing anything and inspiring curiosity. I’m extremely glad I went into it knowing nothing about where it was going. The surprises and developments are among the most beautiful and powerful I’ve seen in a genre film in a long time. This builds on and then surpasses the George Romero zombie mythology, with an inspired and intelligent ruined world narrative that’s hopeful in an unexpected way. The unforced references to previous iconic genre films is delightful without being the slightest bit smugly self-aware (Did anyone else think of Mad Max 2 when a certain group of youngsters appear?).

    I happened to see this a week after seeing Logan, and to see two films so closely together with such fascinating, remarkable and unprecedented cinematic girl characters gave me an overwhelming emotional elevation. And I know it’s a simplistic high school-level of analysis, but The Girl With All the Gifts pretty much fails the Reverse Bechdel Test, with no real significant conversations occurring between males. Such a rarity.

    As for changes to the book, I don’t understand why people expect movies based on books to be explicitly faithful adaptations. As far as I’m concerned, books and movies are non-overlapping magisteria, and we shouldn’t treat movies based on books as if they’re merely talking books with pictures. If it retains the poetic soul of the source, that’s more important than slavishly copying every detail. The picture you have in your head of a novel is always going to be your own and no film is going to match it. My approach is to regard films from books as merely one possible interpretation of the text (even though in most cases we’re unlikely to see another version that goes in a different direction). But I get why people object to changes. I didn’t care for Spielberg’s Tintin movie because that’s not the way the characters move or sound in my head and I prefer to stick with that.

  • Danielm80

    I had trouble following one plot point. Why did Glenn Close’s character keep asking Melanie to guess numbers? It seemed to be some sort of intelligence test, but I missed the logic behind it.

    I am now officially the person behind you in the theatre who spends the whole movie asking, “But why did that guy go in there?”

  • Close wasn’t asking Melanie to guess anything, and she wasn’t testing the child. The kindest interpretation is that Close’s character was just giving the kid some fairly human interaction. An unkind interpretation might be that the Close character wanted to exonerate herself from picking the next kid she would experiment on.

  • WAY behind on this but I just saw it Sat night.
    The # test was about matching up with the # on their door. When she said 4, the camera panned out afterwards and showed the 4 on her door.

    Like you said, it was about who gets to go to the lab next.

  • But Melanie doesn’t know that’s why she’s picking a number. And there’s no real reason for Close to be asking her to do so, except for the chance to chat, however briefly.

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