The Girl with All The Gifts begins by introducing us to Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a seemingly normal young girl. But she clearly isn’t normal. She lives inside a cell, and soldiers come in nervously strap her into a wheelchair before sending her to class. Melanie and the other children in this strange military facility are to be feared for some reason. And that reason becomes clear soon enough. Melanie and her ilk are part of something that has wiped out wide swaths of humanity. When the threat comes to their door, Melanie accompanies her favorite teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), the wary soldier Sgt. Parks (Paddy Considine), and the wily Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) on a journey through dangerous territory to try to get to safety.
There are a lot of good narrative surprises in this movie, and I really don’t want to ruin it for anyone. It probably would be good to head in the theater without knowing too much about this film. All that one really needs to know is that it is a brutally unsentimental piece of science fiction, asking big questions about humanity’s place in the ecosystem, and the struggle to survive in a world that is becoming increasingly hostile. And apart from that, it’s just a solid piece of genre filmmaking that does a lot with limited resources.
This is a film that takes on a basic genre premise and takes it a step further. It looks at familiar tropes with new eyes, never taking for granted the role of humanity in a crisis. It represents humanity in three very strong characters. There is a compassionate Miss Justineau, whose resolve will be tested as she is further confronted with the possibility of her death. There is the stern Sgt. Parks, who doesn’t trust Melanie at all, but will come to rely on her gifts. And then there is Dr. Caldwell, who believes that she is making tough choices for the good of humanity. Through the simple interactions of these three characters, the film is able to spin out into much bigger ideas.
Key to all this is Melanie, of course, who really is just a child. And she’s being granted some agency for the very first time in her life. She asks questions, and is thankful to get answers. She’s really been oppressed for all her life, and now she’s allowed to make decisions for herself. The film’s subtext lies in the decisions that she ultimately makes. The film can play as an allegory for the way that generations interact, the way the old seem to regard the youth as a whole. The film studies the inevitability of change, and what people can do to deal with it.
The film doesn’t look quite as polished as other recent films that have depicted a future dystopia. But the smaller scale works well enough for the film. The action sequences are just all right, but honestly, this is really just a film about the people and who they are in the midst of all of this chaos. So a lot of the strength of this film has to come of the actors, and here the film really shines. Sennia Nanua is a terrific discovery, all at once being childlike while conveying wisdom beyond her age. Gemma Arterton and Paddy Considine are great as well, and Glenn Close brings a lot of much-needed conviction to her role.
The Girl with all the Gifts is terrific. Right from the start, it just has the audience catching up to the truths about the world in which these characters live. And along the way, as we’re figuring things out, the film is already laying down the big questions that come with this world and what’s happening. And it keeps that up right to the very end, the film just continuing to provoke thought as it studies a world that no longer belongs to humanity.