Sweet-faced, 10-year-old Melanie, counting on her fingers in an underground cell and served bowls of live worms through the door slot, hardly seems the type to warrant imprisonment, much less being strapped into a wheelchair when soldiers enter with automatic weapons trained at her face. She’s polite to them, however (“Sergeant Parks”), and in her subterranean classroom under the tutelage of caring Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton) and alongside other similarly restrained kids, she’s a model student despite inexplicably grim conditions.
Melanie, played by appealing newcomer Sennia Nanua, is ostensibly the titular figure in the British dystopian horror yarn “The Girl With All the Gifts.” To Miss Justineau, she’s a figure to nurture, even shed a tear over. But to the soldiers in charge, Melanie is evil personified. That’s because, as we soon learn when Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine) interrupts the lesson to spit on his forearm, hold it in front of one child’s face and watch it transform from cherubic mug into a twisted visage of animal thirst, these aren’t regular grade-schoolers.
With “Girl” we are once more in apocalyptic zombieland, with Mike Carey adapting his well-received novel about child flesh-eaters and the grown-ups who fear/love/study them, and director Colm McCarthy serving it up with palatable tension, if not exactly a brimming visual stylishness or character-driven urgency. In the pantheon of undead sagas, it’s not half as exciting as “28 Days Later,” or as spiritually resonant, political and mythic as George Romero’s defining work. But it’s got some future-world smarts that sporadically elevate it above the junk that dominates this genre, and they help carry it through the routine spatter-and-gore moments and sci-fi clichés.
Unfortunately, most of the good stuff is early on, when the details of this post-outbreak world are more mysterious than explained: How can kids born with this mutated fungus think, feel and appear normal, when the infected adults look typically decayed and robotic? Melanie really likes Miss Justineau, but a teacher visit to her cell is problematic when the hunger pangs start. (Zombies in this world are given the snack-ad-friendly sobriquet “hungries.”)
Then there’s experimenting scientist Dr. Caldwell, played with pulpy, authoritarian grouchiness by a stern-faced Glenn Close. She believes Melanie’s particular cognitive skills and empathetic nature hold the key to a vaccine for humans, if she could just cut her open and get to the brain, a prospect that doesn’t sit well with the fiercely protective Justineau.
When the base is breached, Melanie gets out, becoming part of a survival team along with a few soldiers, Justineau and Caldwell. As they venture into abandoned cities teeming with hungries looking for a protected human enclave, “Girl” slips into standard-issue explore/defend mode: moments of calm and scientific observation — for the filmmakers, breathers so we can appreciate the civilization-ravaged production design — broken up by the occasional bloody attack. The inventive touch that subtly alters the group’s is-she-friend-or-foe dynamic is when the soldiers realize that Melanie can walk among the hungries without sparking their eating instincts, making her an invaluable recon tool.
The final act has writer Carey unveiling his intriguing take on zombie-inspired extinction, triggered by the discovery of the mutation’s next evolutionary stage, and Melanie finding a group of feral children who, unlike her, have had no contact with cultivating humans. As it lopes toward its ending, however, it’s still undistinguished by any remarkable direction or performance — save Close’s late bid for mad-doctor zest. One is left feeling that “The Girl With All the Gifts” is no better or worse than a couple of solid episodes of a sci-fi series, professionally engrossing but unlikely to prompt your own feeding reflexes for more zombie fare.
‘The Girl With All the Gifts’
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Rating: R for disturbing violence/bloody images, and for language
Playing: Laemmle NoHo 7, North Hollywood; also VOD