The Girl with All the Gifts: science, ethics, and being human

23 Sep 2016 BY Elinor Walpole

7 mins
The Girl with All the Gifts
The Girl with All the Gifts

The Girl with all the Gifts takes the familiar zombie genre and uses it to pose ethical and philosophical questions. Many zombie movies (such as Shaun of the Dead, or even Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) have used the imagery of a mindless mass (here referred to as 'hungries') engaged in a feeding frenzy to serve as a metaphor for various aspects of our society, but The Girl with all the Gifts takes a slightly different approach, focusing on a sympathetic central character, Melanie, who is a half-human hybrid who presents an enigma - and possibly hope - to those who take charge of her.

While the zombie genre lends itself well to satire due to a zombie's brainless and unquestioning consumption, Melanie's character is more complex - while she certainly has some very scary "hungry" attributes, she is far from mindless. Her questioning nature is what attracts us to her as an audience, but it's also what makes her a valuable specimen to the film's scientists, who keep her under controlled conditions, presided over by Dr. Caldwell.

Melanie seems able to apply the knowledge that she gains to theoretical situations, and in this way challenges what Dr. Caldwell expects of a so-called 'hungry'. Is she merely "presenting" and mimicking human behaviour as a lure? Or is she in fact genuine; a curious child, eager to learn about the world and desperate to be told stories? While Melanie isn't a creation of the scientists, her position as a specimen under scrutiny is reminiscent of characters like Frankenstein, and brings to mind other films that explore the nuances of new kinds of intelligence and how they might interact with and perhaps alter our society, such as Ex Machina or AI: Artificial Intelligence.

Melanie has been raised in a secure facility, where she is both protected against the marauding forces of the starved hungries outside, but also kept in strict confinement to protect her human guardians from her own hungry side. She has no experience of the outside world, and therefore does not question her surroundings, or the way she is treated by the soldiers, who are led by the brutally efficient Sergeant Parks. Living within this militarily-enforced routine, Melanie's only stimulation comes from contact with her beloved teacher, Miss Justineau, who actually responds to the potential she sees in the hybrid children, and who provides Melanie with the stories that sustain her, such as the myth of Pandora's Box.

Whether in Sergeant Parks' morbid pragmatism or Melanie's sparky observations that send up the hypocrisy of her guardians, there is a distinctly British thread of humour running through the film. The dialogue and changing dynamics between the central characters provides many of the film's laughs, although there are also sight gags (with varying degrees of subtlety) that are enhanced further by sound design that works both to heighten and counteract what's happening on screen. The hungries themselves also add a sly level of hysteria - even if it's just laughing in relief after a jump-inducing moment.

The Girl with all the Gifts began life as a short story, and was developed into a full-length novel simultaneously to its adaptation as a feature film. As a result, the key questions about Melanie and her potential that the short story explores remain central to the film version, even as events on screen develop to challenge and expand the possibilities of that initial idea.

Director Colm McCarthy and writer Mike Carey began their collaboration early on, and McCarthy's attraction to desolate, abandoned landscapes and locations ended up informing the direction of the film's story arc. Beyond the safe compound that has been Melanie's home her whole life, lies the rest of England; laid to waste and inhabited solely by hungries, desperate for their next taste of blood. Humankind is barely anywhere to be seen - any survivors are safely hidden away in secure compounds like the one Melanie calls home.

The vistas that are presented throughout the film dwell on the vitality of plant life, despite the desolation of the man-made environment, revealing an odd beauty in the reclamation of nature over our concrete world. To complement this eerily peaceful vision, there are crowds of listless, purposeless hungries, who - without any prey to stimulate action - simply stand wavering gently in the breeze alongside the overgrown weeds that surround them. As with other films that present a post-apocalyptic vision of the world, such as The RoadChildren of Men or even Mad Max: Fury Road, the viewer is invited to consider how the world came to be in such a state, and what responsibility humankind might have for it.

On top of addressing philosophical problems and post-apocalyptic visions of the future, the film also explores science and ethics. Melanie is of high value to Dr. Caldwell because her advanced intelligence could mean she is a missing ingredient in a vaccine against the 'hungry' infection that has ravaged the human population. The effects of mass infection have been explored in films like Contagion, but is also a topical real life issue, with epidemics and new viruses often making headlines in the real world. The Girl with All the Gifts takes this fear - and the desperation to halt the tide of such infections - as its driving force. 

While the film invites the audience to consider some fairly weighty questions around science, ethics, belonging and the nature of being human, there are also flashes of humour and some unexpected moments which set the film apart from similar genre movies. We'll leave the final word to our Young Reporter Rohan - who recently attended a review writing masterclass with Empire magazine. "There are surprisingly effective moments of levity in what is certainly not a feel-good film. There is an artistry to The Girl with All the Gifts tone that, in the long-term, could set it apart from more mainstream movies.

Elinor Walpole, Film Programmer

Elinor Walpole , Film Programmer

Elinor has a BA in English Literature from the University of Warwick. She has worked as Education and Community Officer for Picturehouse Cinemas, and as Outreach Coordinator for Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

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