Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 27, 2017)
Eventually Hollywood will tire of zombie movies, but “eventually” doesn’t come today. Via 2016’s The Girl With All the Gifts, we get another take on the genre.
In the not-too-distant future, a disease ravages mankind and turns its victims into brainless people-eating monsters known as “hungries”. Some children find themselves semi-immune, however: while they crave the taste of human flesh, they retain normal mental and emotional abilities.
Researchers hope to use the kids to further understand a way to combat the disorder, so the hybrids undergo terrible experiments under the eye of Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close). The children also attend school, and teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) grows especially attached to a girl named Melanie (Sennia Nanua).
During an attack by outside “hungries”, Melanie manages to escape. Along with Helen, Dr. Caldwell and Army Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine), Melanie goes on a journey of survival and self-discovery.
As I implied at the start, filmmakers have beaten the zombie theme to death over recent years. Sure, most of these works attempt their own twists, but they still come with the same vibe. Call them “hungries” instead of “zombies” if you like, but the basic character orientation essentially remains the same.
To my surprise, Gifts offers a solid variation on the theme. No, the hybrid kids we meet aren’t unique in the genre, but they add a curveball, especially because the film makes them seem so pleasant and likable.
This works well, especially at the story’s start. When we first meet Melanie and the other children, we get no explanation of their “hybrid” status. Why are they kept in restraints when they seem to be sweet, nice youngsters? We don’t know – not until Sgt. Parks reminds Helen about the threat they maintain.
I like this choice – even though I read the synopsis and knew where the characters would go, the reveal of the kids’ “inner hunger” proves awfully effective. The movie doesn’t telegraph the “secret”, so despite my foreknowledge, this sequence offers a nice punch.
The rest of the movie follows suit, as Gifts manages to blend genres successfully. It gives us a deeper, more character-based feel than usual for the zombie theme, but it doesn’t sacrifice action or suspense.
Gifts also boasts a nice cast, all of whom develop their roles well. The actors add gravity to the potentially silly proceedings, and Nanua offers a near-revelatory performance.
Face it: Melanie easily could turn into an unintentionally amusing role, largely because the movie places her in scenes with real pitfalls. Forced to snarl, growl and snap, Nanua could’ve made Melanie laughable and goofy.
Happily, Nanua avoids those issues and creates a strong character. She does Melanie’s sweet, gentle side well but also manages the part’s rougher edges with aplomb. Nanua becomes critical to the movie’s success and she acquits herself nicely.
I do think Gifts loses some steam as it goes, but this doesn’t become a substantial impediment to its success. The movie delivers a nice variation on its genre and becomes a thoughtful, engaging exploration.