When The Girl With All The Gifts first hit theaters in the U.K. last September, the world was a different place. The film has recently opened in the United States, which is a much scarier place now.
Last fall, Donald Trump wasn’t our president. Betsy DeVos hadn’t been confirmed as Secretary of Education, and an unconstitutional immigration ban wasn’t having a demonstrable chilling effect on the scientific community. As the horror movie finally makes it way into American theaters, though, all of those objectively terrifying things have come to pass. It’s easy to muse about how the Trump administration’s chaotic incompetence and ethically dubious actions read like the opening scenes of a post-apocalyptic horror film. But in many ways, The Girl With All The Gifts is an interesting reflection on what it means to resist, survive, and ultimately thrive in a (real) world infested with rabid, horrifying monsters.
On its surface, The Girl With All The Gifts is a straightforward, if devastatingly grim, zombie flick. The world, overrun with fast-moving, bloodthirsty “Hungries” has collapsed save for a few military outposts where what’s left of humanity is frantically struggling to find a cure for the infection that’s caused by a parasitic fungus.
Both the movie and the 2014 book it’s based on are told from the perspective of a young girl named Melanie, one of the infected children being studied as the potential source for a cure. While the Hungries are mindless, ravenous predators that swarm around the military base, Melanie (Sennia Nanua) and her fellow classmates retain all of their cognitive functions and only hint at their inner nature when exposed to the scent of uninfected flesh. Every day, most children are restrained to rolling chairs, wheeled into a classroom, and encouraged to read and write by their teacher Ms. Justineau (Gemma Arterton) while some are singled out by Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) for dissection and study.
While Caldwell is cold and clinical in her analyses of the children—only seeing them as hosts for a disease that makes them seem like children—Justineau has a true love for them, Melanie in particular. The bond between Melanie and Justineau is what set the events of The Girl With All The Gifts in motion, but the movie makes an important change to the characters from the book.
In the book, Ms. Justineau is described as a woman of color with skin “so dark she was like her own shadow” while Melanie describes herself as having skin “as white as snow.” In the movie, however, Justineau is portrayed by a white actress and Melanie is black. It’s a subtle casting choice that doesn’t change how the movie’s plot unfolds, but it does give the story an added layer of meaning in 2017.
After the military compound is overrun by Hungries, Melanie, Justineau, Caldwell, and a group of soldiers go on the run in search of a safe haven that may not exist. All of the adults save for Justineau fear Melanie after seeing her viciously attack a pair of uninfected people during one chaotic scene and Caldwell continues to plot just how she might be able to eventually cut into Melanie’s body for her research.
As the group wanders through the English countryside and eventually a nearby city, the adults are picked off one by one as they’re attacked by various hoards of Hungries, but Melanie, who’s already infected, can move through the world freely and in relative safety for the first time in her life. This world, she realizes, won’t hurt her the way that uninfected humans have.
When Melanie explores deeper places within the city that are too dangerous for the uninfected, she actually finds other infected, but intelligent children like herself. That moment is a turning point where The Girl With All The Gifts begins to subvert the traditional zombie narrative by turning it into a parable about hope and change.
In one of the final scenes of the movie, after Dr. Caldwell has been torn apart by the group of infected children that have been stalking the group, Melanie makes the decision to light a cluster of seed pods carrying the deadly fungus on fire, which makes them release their far-flying spores into the air. Melanie does this knowingly, she explains to a horrified, dying soldier, because she realizes that it’s children like herself who were exposed to the fungus in vitro are the future.
“I’m sorry, sergeant. I’m so sorry,” she says. “It’s going to be all right. It’s not over, it’s just not yours anymore.”
The image of a young black girl looking down at a dying white man who thinks she’s a monster is powerful in and of itself, but The Girl With All The Gifts gives it a unique significance. As Melanie walks away from the soldier, the same fungus that gave her life is killing the soldier and is ensuring that, in the end, the zombies will win and give birth to a new form of humanity.
As the film ends, Ms. Justineau, who’s only alive and now trapped in an airlocked research van, realizes that she’s probably the last living uninfected person in the world. Rather than dwelling on it, though, she pulls herself together and stoically prepares daily lessons for the group of infected children that now Melanie now brings to her in order for them to begin learning how to live as people.
The Girl With All The Gifts isn’t just the story about the end of the world, it’s about a new one that begins with a brilliant black child and a teacher who understands the power and importance of a proper education (what’s good, Betsy DeVos?).
This world, one virtually devoid of white men, and led by women and people of color is precisely the kind that Donald Trump and his administration don’t want. Ironically, The Girl With All the Gifts manages to depict the creation of that sort of utopia through the same kind of lens that Trump might describe it—an apocalyptic one—but the key to understanding the movie’s beauty is to understand that it’s really an origin story for a better future.