Funny thing, movie cycles: you think one’s been exhausted, then somebody gives one more kick and sets matters running again. Dystopian YA seemed to have been put to bed with news the final part of the Divergent series – a franchise forever skulking in the shadow of the Hunger Games phenomenon – would be diverted online, where it can presumably be GIF-fed and memed and whatever else the target audience wants. Movies are dead, the pundits cry. And yet there now comes Brit contender The Girl with All the Gifts, demonstrating how such material can be reconfigured to win over, well, Old Adults.
Colm McCarthy’s film, adapted by Mike Carey from his own novel, unfolds in some near-future Britain where children are kept locked up by night, and – by day – strapped into wheelchairs so as to be transported by the military for cautious, lukewarm schooling. Why isn’t immediately clear: Gemma Arterton’s kindly educator Miss Justineau sees only promise in a student like Melanie (Sennia Nanua). Others, such as Paddy Considine’s stomping Sgt. Parks, appear greatly more fearful, worried about these youngsters’ latent power, and the possibility they may eventually rise up against their keepers.
Well, you say to yourself, there’s a workable metaphor for the relationship between the old guard and feral youth, and it’s refreshing to encounter a dystopian sci-fi with more on its mind than rote action and whitebread love triangles. Carey’s concern is what we do with the curious creatures who follow in our wake – do we lock ‘em up, for their (and our) own good, or seek to create a better, kinder, safer world for them, no matter that such an aim may seem like far harder work?
This question assumes a greater urgency when Melanie – who greets her keepers with cheery hellos, and impresses even the facility’s somewhat chilly Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) with her logical demeanour – confirms Parks’s worst fears, reacting to the fungus that’s polluted our gene pool by jerking and thrashing around, foaming at the mouth and baying for blood. At moments, she resembles a zombie, yes; at others, though, she looks like any other youngster snarling up against the barbed-wire fence of authority.
If there’s an obvious precedent here, it’s Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later…, now an adolescent itself, having first been released in late 2001. Carey and McCarthy retain Boyle’s enthusiasm for jugular-ripping action, but – as events force the military to abandon the base and rethink their experiment – they reverse the trajectory, coming in from the countryside to a London whose myriad Prets and Lidls have been reclaimed by nature. (It’s a sterling collaboration between the production designers and the visual effects team.)
What follows mixes the impressively spectacular (the BT Tower becomes a pointedly phallic holding bay for seed pods) with the genuinely thoughtful. McCarthy takes the obligation setpieces in his stride: one simple yet very effective suspense sequence has our survivors attempting to tiptoe quietly past the dozing undead, while Melanie gets a mid-film makeover notably less extravagant than any Katniss underwent. (She gets Velcro trainers, and she’s delighted.)
Yet he also makes room for an ongoing internal debate – between the soldier who perceives this girl as a threat, the doctor who would claim her as a case study, and the teacher who sees her as a work-in-progress – which is very precisely cast. McCarthy rightly senses he needs Arterton’s softness and pliancy to offset the concrete-and-steel coldness of her adult co-stars, and thereby to allow those of us in the cheap seats to weigh – as we have so often weighed in the course of 2016 – despair and insecurity against optimism and hope.
Recent weeks have suggested the crisis facing the commercial cinema – a minor one, in the grand scheme of things – is a generational one: that the thirty- and fortysomethings who shelled out for The Blair Witch Project back in 1999 simply cannot be tempted back to experience a leaner, slicker 21st century update. I have to confess this 38-year-old was pretty gripped by The Girl with All the Gifts – and my suspicion is that even those teenagers who sneak in to see it will be compelled to stop What’s Apping for at least some of its running time.
The Girl with All the Gifts is now available on DVD through Warner Bros.