Why is it that good actors in career stasis so often wind up in zombie films? No one reading the outline for “The Girl With All the Gifts” could really have come away thinking, “This will break the mold,” though given the long list of executive producers, the script must have passed through plenty of hands. Colorlessly directed by Colm McCarthy in his feature debut, this overlong contribution to the genre is set in the not-too-distant future, when a fungus has turned most everyone into brain-dead “Hungries” feasting on flesh and blood. The film’s catch is that all attention is on a little girl Hungry whose brain somehow seems perfectly fine. Maybe the premise seemed marginally original at one time, but few outside teen audiences will think Mike Carey’s adaptation of his own novel is anything more than another tired attempt to board the zombie bandwagon.
Don’t expect subtext or metaphor, because there’s not a drop on screen, though at least bits of dialogue are meant to be funny (far more amusing are lines apparently written in dead earnest). The focus is on 10-year-old Melanie (bright, appealing newcomer Sennia Nanua), first seen in a prison cell hiding a photo of a kitten before being collected by a couple of gun-toting soldiers. She’s strapped to a wheelchair and brought with other children to a classroom, where severe Dr. Jean Selkirk (Anamaria Marinca) is teaching them the periodic table.
Audiences are meant to be caught off-guard: Why are these sweet kids being treated like dangerous criminals? Since this is a zombie movie, the answer is far more obvious than the more pertinent question of why is the military instructing zombie kiddies about the chemical elements? It must be so that a kindly teacher can be introduced, in the form of sensitive Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton, her eyes meaningfully glistening with emotion). Melanie is the apple of her eye, and who can blame her: the exceptionally well-mannered little girl is warmth personified. What a contrast to cold Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close), her frozen expression crowned with a buzz cut. The bad doctor is just itching to wield a scalpel on poor Melanie so she can synthesize something in the child’s brain and create an antidote that will stop the fungal origin of the Hungries.
All the children being held in the military installation are anomalies: most Hungries are inactive until they get a whiff of flesh and blood, when they turn into mindless munching machines, but Melanie and her pals seem perfectly normal except when the smell of bodily fluids makes them ravenous zombies. Dr. Caldwell is on the brink of understanding why they have “partial immunity to the Hungry pathogen,” but then the regular Hungries attack the base, killing most everyone there.
Luckily, Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) together with a couple of privates (Fisayo Akinade, Anthony Welsh) manage to escape with Dr. Caldwell, Helen, and the precious Melanie, possible key to saving the world. The remainder of the film – and there’s an awful lot that remains – is meant to take place in a destroyed London, unexcitedly evoked through a few digital effects and location shooting in abandoned buildings (did Barclays or Mercedes-Benz pay for product placement?). The expected conflicts play out: kind Helen wants to save Melanie, cold-hearted Caldwell wants to open her brain, and Sgt. Parks wants to keep everyone alive.
The script is full of the usual banalities disguised as philosophical conversations, but none of it tries for even the remotest hint of metaphor, and a “Lord of the Flies”-style subplot plays like something out of an episode from the original “Star Trek” (but not in a good way). At least Close attacks her scenes with gusto – no one can say it’s not a committed performance. Fortunately, newcomer Nanua conveys genuine charm, which will be put to better use in another vehicle.
Director McCarthy does little visually that would generate a sense of fear in any viewer, and there’s nothing that will generate so much as a startled jump. A few curse words together with some zombie gobbles take the film outside the children’s market, making it hard to guess the target audience. The repetitive, droning music is meant to build tension though mostly just calls attention to itself.