In an alternative present, or perhaps near future, humanity has been decimated by a fungal disease that turns its victims into flesh-eating “hungries“.
At an army base in rural England, a small group of infected children are being studied by biologist Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close, fatally attractive once more), who considers them less than human, or at least dispensable in her search for a vaccine. A sacrifice for the good of humanity, which is on the brink of extinction.
Despite being “hungries”, compelled by their infected brains to tear any uninfected human apart for food, these children think rationally and feel human emotions. But only one person, their teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), considers them human.
One girl, Melanie (a brilliant performance by thirteen-year-old Sennia Nanua), is inquisitive, imaginative and excels in the classroom to which the children are wheeled each morning, strapped to their chairs to stop them eating the guards and teacher. Through the peephole of her stone cell, Caldwell gives Melanie riddles and even asks her to consider the Quantum Mechanics paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, in which a cat in a sealed box could be either alive or dead, or both, depending on a random state of subatomic particles controlling a potentially lethal radioactive charge. The hungries, strapped to their wheelchairs, polite until they smell flesh, are neither human nor subhuman, or perhaps, like the cat, alive and dead at the same time. Melanie is in a box (or a stone cell) and may be alive or dead, depending on the science; human or inhuman, depending on the politics. Like all of us, her life is in a state of quantum superposition, controlled by random forces over which we have no control. Ask anyone in an ER ward.
The children are kept in cells and only taken out by heavily armed soldiers. Their food is live worms.
Melanie is precociously brilliant and loves her teacher Miss Justineau.
When the base is invaded by hungries, Melanie escapes along with Miss Justineau, Dr. Caldwell and some heavily armed soldiers, some of whom she needs to eat to save Justineau. This causes her human side some ethical issues.
The group agree to take Melanie with them, believing that Caldwell will be cutting her up for a vaccine, but she is forced to wear a mask, like Hannibal Lecter as they try to find a fortified settlement in a world filled with hungries.
Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a respectable 86% although most of the reviewers saw it as a superior entry in the zombie tradition. It’s actually not a zombie movie, although there are very large numbers of rotting people standing around, ready to chase anyone that moves too fast or talks too loud.
But the hungries are not corpses who have risen from the dead like Night of the Living Dead; they are infected by Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which is a real fungus discovered by Wallace in 1859 (the dude who came up with the idea of natural selection at the same time as Darwin). The fungus, which normally affects insects, has in this story mutated to take over the brains of living humans, making them into hungries. Spores from the fungus, or a bite from a hungry, can turn a person into one in a few seconds. If you recall the virus that took over the UK in 28 Days Later and filled the victims with uncontrollable rage, this is an infection (albeit fungal) that fills its victims with voracious appetite. The hungries stand around like rotting statues, unresponsive to anything but the taste, sound, smell or movement of living animals, including humans. Is there a metaphor here for the way we drift through life, only mobilised, often by smart marketing, into sudden bouts of voracious hunger? The hungries are “free” of all the cares and duties of being human – they are only alive when they smell fresh flesh. They live what Kundera calls an “idyllic” existence of constant repetition. Melanie is equally free in her cell – to strap herself into her chair, learn her lessons, and eat her worms at night. Once she is freed, there are all sorts of decisions to be made – practical and ethical ones.
Although the fungus is not a virus like COVID-19, it does eventually kill the hungries to feed on their bodies, in order to grow its fruit body and create spoors.
Caldwell explains that the child hungries, including Melanie, were discovered in a maternity hospital.
“The mothers were there too. They were… empty. Cored. From the inside.”
The embryos were infected through the placenta, and
Melanie and the other children at the base were captured soon after birth and socialised (except for the, you know, growling and biting), but other child hungries have gone feral, and live in urban tribes that hunt and can communicate only in grunts and snarls. Melanie has to establish her authority over them by employing their own violent methods.
The movie (and book on which it is based by Mike Carey, who simultaneously wrote the screenplay) is a bildungsroman, the story of Melanie’s coming of age. Incarcerated since birth, Melanie has a burning desire to understand what she is, how she got that way, and control her own future.
The interviewer on rogerebert.com said:
“There’s a visceral, emotional impact to the horror and action of “The Girl with All the Gifts” that resonates because the characters and the world they live in feels real to us.”
We all live in that world, where infections run wild, the authorities are at a loss for solutions, and superspreaders and conspiracy theorists are hungries. This is an intelligent and gripping thriller that asks questions about the nature and ethics of sacrifice. While we are sacrificing front line workers to save oldies (like me) from COVID, what can we say about the sacrifice of the innocent like Melanie?
The favourite word of 2020 was “unprecedented” as an unknown and widely unforeseen virus disrupted all aspects of normal life. Derrida uses the term “arrivant” – an “Other”, an absolute newcomer about whom we know nothing, and who may take monstrous form. Melanie and the hungries, like SARS-CoV-2, are arrivants.
The big question Melanie asks the scientist and the teacher is: what if the arrivants, the child hungries who are symbiotes with the fungus, are a superior race of human? We eat animals we consider lesser beings – why shouldn’t they do the same?