“The Girl with All the Gifts” is a sci-fi dystopian take on the Pandora myth

The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)
Director: Colm McCarthy
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Glenn Close, Sennia Nanua, Paddy Considine

The Girl with All the Gifts is titled after the best-selling novel it is based on. The title is a bit innocuous and doesn’t stand out when you think of similarly titled novels made into films like The Girl on the Train and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This works both for and against the The Girl with All the Gifts. It’s a film that can be overlooked and at the same time underestimating it can catch you off guard in a pleasantly good way. 

Writer M.R. Carey’s story is a dystopian thriller set in the future where most of humanity is afflicted with a horrific fungal infection. The perspective is mainly told from Melanie’s viewpoint, a brilliant young girl imprisoned in a military base. Her teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) is very empathetic towards the needs of the children while lead scientist Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) dissects the children in order to find a cure.

There are two main story devices that work really well. The first is in making the viewer feel compassionate towards Melanie before giving the explanation on why she’s held captive along with the other children. The counterpoint is from Dr. Caldwell’s perspective where in her mind she has to dehumanize the children, essentially not see them as real people, in order to do what she needs to do to save humanity. Young actress Sennia Nanua also has a strong likability factor and her natural performance holds its own against the more experienced cast members. 

The second element is based on the riddle that Dr. Caldwell asks Melanie to solve which is, if a cat is in a box is it alive or dead? It’s interesting because it is as much a logic based riddle as it is a philosophical one. Particularly since The Girl with All the Gifts puts a slightly fresh twist on a popular survival horror genre that isn’t dying anytime soon. It’s also analogous to the Gift of Pandora greek mythology that has something to say about the nature of humanity and hope. Or in rudimentary terms, when Pandora opened the jar releasing all the evil out onto humankind, leaving only hope inside once she closed the lid, is hope alive or dead?  

Not necessarily a big critique is that most characters, including Gemma Arterton’s Justineau, aren’t fully fleshed out as complex living, breathing people. The supporting characters are designed to be stand-ins to represent various viewpoints or set of beliefs. The other minor knock is that as prestige TV is increasing its production value it’s becoming on par if not better than modestly budgeted movies like The Girl with All the Gifts. Director Colm McCarthy’s background is on good television shows like Peaky Blinders and Sherlock, but there isn’t much visual flare or cinematic scope to the presentation.

The Girl with All the Gifts is a refreshingly different take on the outbreak survival thriller genre. The lead character and performance from Sennia Nanua carries the film and some of the questions posed about humanity are thought provoking. If you can look beyond the title, The Girl with All the Gifts has good story ideas, it’s the execution in the latter part of the film, lack of full formed supporting characters and mediocre visual presentation which hold it back. 

Rating: ★★★☆☆  (three out of five stars)


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