Friday, June 30, 2017

Don't Watch This Alone!: THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS

Welcome to another installment of DON'T WATCH THIS ALONE!, where we review the best, worst, and everything in between in the world of horror. This week we review the zombie thriller, THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS.

As much as I love a good zombie movie, I'm glad their mainstream popularity is on the wane. There's really only so much you can do with zombies as a plot device, and even the zombie-as-metaphor route has been well-traveled in recent days. 2016's The Girl With All the Gifts stands apart from this crowd, at least to a degree. While it doesn't shy away from embracing some of the tropes that are popular in the zombie sub genre of horror -- the end of modern civilization, the imminent extinction of mankind, the small cadre of scientists working to find a cure, etc -- Girl deviates from the norm in several important ways.

First, and this deserves recognition most of all, The Girl With All the Gifts is the first zombie movie I've seen that bases the story of where the zombies came from in real-world phenomena, making the zombie outbreak the result of a fungal infection, similar to fungal infections that have been observed to affect the behavior of ants in Brazil. Secondly, for reasons that are explained (not entirely satisfactorily) in the course of the plot, people infected by this fungus -- you get three guesses why the characters call them "Hungries" -- don't necessarily turn into mindless beasts. Usually they do, but a few cases have been discovered, prior to the opening of the story, of Hungries that retained most of their humanity. Or at least they do until they get hungry, and an unlucky human or animal should cross their path.

The final difference, and this is where I take issue with the film, is what the zombies represent. Once again, The Girl With All the Gifts embraces the standard zombie movie ending: the desperate struggle of the few remaining survivors comes to naught, and the zombies inherit the earth. The difference here is that instead of existential despair, The Girl With All the Gifts tries to make this ending a happy prophecy for audiences living here in Twenty-Woke-teen. The Hungries, you see, aren't the faceless avatars of the End of All Things. Instead, they are the Downtrodden 99% Victims of the world, finally getting their due against the Oppressor. The blank slate of the zombie is thus turned on its head. It's not the first time the zombie has been used as a vehicle for political commentary, but it's a rare thing to see them represent the "good guys".

The development of the plot in The Girl With All the Gifts starts out strong. At first all we know is that Melanie (Sennia Nanua), the titular Girl, is being held prisoner, along with several other children, by soldiers who are, apparently, terrified of her. When she's let out of her cell at all, she is in a wheelchair, bound at the wrists, ankles, and head. Details are fed out slowly, until we finally learn what Melanie is, just in time for the military base where she is being held to be overrun by the infected. A small group of survivors, including Melanie, her sympathetic teacher Ms. Justineau (Gemma Arterton), and a Dr. Caldwell, the scientist working to find a cure (Glenn Close), flee the base, and set out to find another military base not far away.

From there the story falls back on predictable territory, and the power of the narrative is lessened because of it. A stop to refill canteens goes pear-shaped when one of the soldiers, naturally the only one that didn't have a suppressor on his rifle, gets a little trigger happy. There are set pieces that show just how overrun the area has become. Our band will do plenty of skulking in shadows and hiding out in abandoned buildings on their journey.

Melanie is soon discovered to be of use in this situation, since the Hungries don't attack their own and so she can do things like recon infested areas. But mostly she just spends the latter half of the movie making the metaphor in play here painfully obvious, telling the group things like how the Hungries "just want to live", the same as anybody else does. This comes to a head at the end of the film, when Doctor Caldwell urges Melanie to submit to being dissected so that a cure for the infection can be produced. Melanie pushes back (understandably), and when she gets the doctor to admit that Melanie, and all Hungries by extension, is not merely an animal mimicking Human behavior, Melanie delivers the kicker: "Then why should we die for you?"

This is where the movie lost me; the too-quick surrender of an original story for another string of predictable zombie-movie cliches is bad enough, but this #ZombieLivesMatter garbage clinched it. For all the preaching the movie does about how the Hungries have as much a claim to life as anyone, the ending never acknowledges that the surviving humans also have that claim. If the Hungries, through Melanie, have the right to refuse to die for the Humans continued survival, then the reverse is also true. Instead the movie goes on to argue just the opposite. Following this little epiphany, Melanie escapes the group and sets in motion a chain of events that we were told previously would eliminate all remaining non-infected life. "It's not over", she tells one of the other characters, managing to sound both smug and comforting at the same time, "it's just not yours anymore."

The ending of this movie is the worst part, because it fails on so many levels. The double-standard aside, so far as we know, there are only a handful of non-bestial Hungries like Melanie in the world, not nearly enough to make a significant effort at rebuilding. Secondly, the movie makes it clear that the Hungries aren't cannibals, and neither do they like to eat their vegetables. So what happens after all the non-infected meat is gone? What's supposed to be a metaphorical "We Shall Overcome" ending gets lost in childish naïveté. By taking steps to kill the last remaining Humans -- the film suggests that livestock have gotten thin on the ground since the plague began -- Melanie has very likely doomed her own kind to extinction in a single generation, perhaps two.

The Girl With All the Gifts disserves its intended audience as much as it caters to them. I can understand the allure of hoping for the day when the Revolution finally washes away the sins of the past, but overlooking the work that will have to be done the day after that revolution succeeds, and all the days thereafter, is dangerous. Escapist fantasy is all well and good, but the timeliness of this one makes me hope it won't be taken seriously.

The Girl with All the Gifts is rated R for disturbing violence/bloody images, and for language.

Robert's Score: 4 / 10

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1 comment:

  1. I agree with you, near the ending this movie was disappointing, It caught me in the beginning especially since I didn't know I was watching a Zombie movie so it was very curious. It could have been so much better. thanks.