Monday, 5 June 2017

Review: The Girl with all the Gifts

Cute kid. Too bad she eats brains.
This is one of the better zombie films I've seen. 

Based on the book by M. R. Carey (who also wrote the film adaptation) and directed by Colm McCarthy, it's clever, has decent characters, a good story, and for me, even better, logic behind the zombie infection.

Quelle surprise!

The fundamental problem most zombie movies have is that they lose steam after the initial outbreak plays out. This one doesn't. In fact, it starts long after the outbreak, and delves into the cause. The zombies are just a stage in the life cycle of a fungus. Which is awesome! It adds another layer to the tired genre and gives the film somewhere to go.

The Walking Dead is frustrating because it deliberately avoids explaining anything about the outbreak. Without cause, there can be no solution. No cure to find, no change down the road, no next stage, nothing. Just endless repetition: characters find a promising new haven, only to have this haven turn out to have a snake in the grass (The mayor is crazy! The are performing medical experiments on people! They're cannibals! Etcetera), everything goes to hell, and they set off in search of a new haven. Repeat ad nauseam.

And that's it.

Zombies become background noise. There's no seeking any kind of cure, no satiating our curiosity. It's just about survival and people struggling with the 'real' threat: other humans. It's tired and boring after awhile. In addition, I find the characters are badly conceived and often act out of plot necessity rather than personal motivation. Game of Thrones does character so much better. But no one else seems to notice this, so what do I know?

In Girl with all the Gifts, we're supposed to look at things in terms of new and old paradigms. The second stage infected, babies who ate their way out of their infected mother's wombs, are able to think and function but are also consumed by the lust for living flesh. They are contrasted against the surviving humans, who are unable to live with the fungus (actually based on a real fungus that infects ants and compels them to climb up to the top of the forest canopy so the fungus can spore).

The main character, Melanie (played by the fabulous Sennia Nanua) is one such child. And she's quite sympathetic, particularly when contrasted against the scientist Caroline Caldwell, played by Glenn Close, who callously wants to harvest her brain. Oh, clever! She's essentially a brain eating scientist, bad as the zombies.

Zombie fungus-girl is loved by her teacher, Miss Empathy, played by Gemma Arterton. Her character has a name, I think (Strawberry Fields?), but she's better remembered by her function: making us feel sympathy for the fungus-zombie-girl Melanie.

It seems they're trying to teach these fungus infected kids in an underground bunker, before Glenn dices their brains.

The film invites us to contemplate this conflict, which pits the new fungus-humans against their antecedents.

The base is soon overrun by mindless first stage fungus-zombies, and only a small team escapes: Doc Coldwell, Miss Empathy, Sargent Gruff Nuts, zombie-fungus girl, and a few disposable soldiers.

Things go from bad to worse as the team is whittled down. They discover a field lab / bunker and some feral zombie-fungus kids.

At the end of the film, Melanie declines to allow her brain to be used to create a vaccine for the remaining humans (or to sacrifice one of the feral fungus kids in her stead), and sets fire to The Great Fungus Tree, which will spread spores across the world and bring about the end of the world.

At this point, the only human left is Empathy Lady, who was unconscious in the sealed field lab. Unfortunately she will be dead in short order, because Melanie would have to get more food to her, eventually, and everything outside the lab is now contaminated with fungus spores, including the water. So the last human, the fungus kids' only and last tutor, is going to die.

Fungus-humanity is going to have to start all over again, only this time it goes into blood lust whenever it's hungry.


It raises interesting questions:

Were animals infected by the fungus too, or just humans? That point is unclear, but it's essential. Because if animals are also infected by the fungus, there's nothing left to eat or pollinate plants. Instead, all fauna craves flesh. Bugs included. How's that going to work?

What benefits does the fungus bring to an animal, other than blood lust? It's a symbiot, supposedly, but to me it just seems like, at best, a 'benign' infection.

Glenn Close's painted as being in the wrong, of course. She's far less sympathetic than the little girl with whom we're supposed to empathize. Miss Empathy hates Glenn, too. And Glenn once played a character who boiled a bunny. I don't think that's coincidence in casting.

But look at the actions of morally superior Melanie: she ruthlessly beats to death another child to establish pack dominance and save her friends. So she's willing to kill a child to save her loved ones.


How's that different from the hated Doctor Cold?

The Girl also decides, on her own, to exterminate humanity.

That's the neatest trick of the film: to get us on side with our own elimination.

So we get a world of feral children who go into blood frenzy when they're hungry and have no other food sources. What else are they going to eat, other than each other? Are there any animals left at this point? Wouldn't seven billion fungus-zombies have already thinned out the animal population? As in, entirely? Seven billion fungus-zombies in blood lust at the sight of a cat, dog, squirrel, cow or anything else that's edible would result in very few cows and cats being left.

And the kids have no technology at all. No knowledge of social theory, of hydraulics, sanitation, combustion, anything. Six thousand years of civilization gone. There's only one tutor on the planet for all the zombie kids, and thanks to Melanie, Miss Empathy is going to be dead in short order.

Well done Melanie!

What was the time pressure on Melanie, anyway, to set the Great Fungus Tree on fire so quickly? Glenn Close was dying anyway! The other remaining two humans were no threat to her. They cared for her! So why not plan things out a little more?

I get the divide here, between two sets of people with incompatible needs, and the fangle that there's no right or wrong with it, just survival. Of course, we're meant to identify with fungus girl, and to accept her decision as evolution.

It isn't: there's nothing intrinsically superior about the fungus kids.

It reminds me of The Chrysalids by John Wyndham, which is about evolution and a mutant variant replacing the previously dominant species. The children society is fighting to exterminate in this book are telepathic, and which actually is advantageous. Regular humans are obviously inferior to these psychic children, and so they'll be displaced. I get that.

But the only advantage fungus kids have is that they can live with the fungus. Take away the fungus and they have no advantage over ordinary humans. In fact, since they go into a blood fever state when hungry, you could argue that they are inferior.

Melanie's decision is understandable, given how she's been treated, but it doesn't make her actions any less monstrous. But that's part of the charm of the film: it has well motivated characters, each with their own justifiable point of view.

The empathy of the teacher for fungus kid is meant to us align with Melanie's choice ('Die humanity!'), while Glenn Close is unlikeable to let us know she's on the wrong side ('Bad child murderer!').

It's very well done and an exercise in emotional manipulation, which is what all film making is, ultimately. We watch films to have our emotions yanked about. Movies make us feel. They're emotion machines.

And the better ones make us think as well.

This one hits both marks, although I don't agree with the ending on a personal level. It's a great narrative choice, and it will, I think, spur discussion after. The picture would have far less impact if Melanie had sacrificed herself for humanity's remnant.

It reminds me of Logan in that sense: I hated the fate they doled out to characters I'm rather fond of, but I admired the narrative boldness of their choices. It's an excellent super hero film, one of the best, even if needlessly violent.

I'm not sure I've seen a film before that tries to get the audience on board with exterminating humanity.

That's a neat trick.

Pro-fungus-zombie propaganda at its best.

Give it a watch.

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