I debated with myself how to describe this movie, since giving very much of a description could be called a spoiler. So let's just say that this is a dystopian thriller with an unusually strong subversive streak, featuring a lot of monsters of all shapes and sizes. It's not a great film, but it does a lot of things right, and in a way that I found very smart and appealing.
At the center of the film is the fascinating character of Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a bright girl who is one of a group of children being held in a military base, under heavy guard, and always in restraints when interacting with any adults. The one person who is kind to her is the children's teacher, Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), but her affection is frowned upon by Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine), one of the base's commanders. Melanie is also visited regularly by a scientist, Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close), who is studying the children.
"The Girl With All the Gifts" presents a familiar horror scenario, but one that examines and challenges its underlying framework. It has a lot in common with other recent science-fiction films like "Ex Machina" and the rebooted "Planet of the Apes" series, where the audience is meant to question who they're rooting for and why. This isn't apparent until a fair ways into the film. For most of the running time, this operates as a fairly straightforward dystopian survival movie, and not a great one. However, it's been a long time since I've seen a science-fiction film that takes so many of the familiar old tropes and manages to make something genuinely different and interesting out of them. The worldbuilding in particular is just fantastic.
I wish some of the secondary characters could have been better fleshed out, especially as the cast is wonderful. We really don't see enough of Glenn Close these days, and Paddy Considine is as dependable as ever. However, this is really Melanie's story, and Sennia Nanua carries the film just fine. Her performance alone is worth a watch, as she gradually learns more about her world and herself. Though the filmmakers aren't too on the nose about it, there are some elements of the plot that echo current social issues. Melanie is a rare cinematic creature in many respects, and the fact that she's also a person of color surrounded by, and under the control of more typical Caucasian hero figures creates some startling images.
"The Girl With All the Gifts" was made a on small budget, and occasionally feels like an episode of a higher-end sci-fi anthology series like "Black Mirror." It's no surprise that director Colm McCarthy has worked mostly on UK television series. However, the film delivers pretty well on thrills and chills, and it does manage to create a distinct, engaging dystopia without feeling like it's cutting many corners. The glimpses of London suburbs overgrown with vegetation are more vibrant and alien than the traditionally bleak images of decay that we get with similar movies. On the other hand, the action scenes could have used some work, especially since there are so many.
I want to stress, however, that this is not a film that's about the action in the end. At hear, it's a character drama about a special girl finding her place in the world. And on that level, it's an immensely satisfying watch. It also does everything that a good science-fiction film is supposed to, developing interesting ideas and scenarios in a very thoughtful, socially relevant way. I also appreciated that it was so female-centric, which is still a rarity, and so self-aware about all the usual tropes and cliches of this genre. Just when I thought these kinds of stories were getting played out, someone has found a new angle to explore.
It's a shame that smaller genre films like this are still getting overlooked. The UK and Australian produced ones seem especially prone to slipping through the cracks, even when top tier talent is involved. "The Girl With All the Gifts" is one of these, having had only a very limited Stateside theatrical and VOD release. I hope that it finds its audience sooner rather than later.