The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

2017 #28
Colm McCarthy | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.00:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

The Girl with All the Gifts

When George A. Romero invented the zombie subgenre in the ’60s, he was more concerned with allegory than blood ‘n’ guts. The latter has come to dominate, as it has with so much of the broader horror genre, but from time to time there’s still room for thoughtful contributions more befitting Romero’s legacy. This low-budget British film, adapted from a young adult novel, is one such effort.

As the film opens we’re introduced to Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a young girl who sits in a concrete bedroom treasuring her photo of a kitten. Then soldiers enter and, at gunpoint, strap her to a chair, before wheeling her to a classroom with similarly restrained children. It’s just the beginning of a fantastic first act, full of atmosphere and intrigue as this world is rolled out before us. The less you know the better, though the chances of going in so cold that it’s a total mystery are sadly slim. If you’re intrigued enough already to check out the movie on my recommendation alone, stop reading now! Go watch it! If not…

So, as it turns out, we’re in the near future and a fungal disease has turned most of humanity into zombie-like creatures known as ‘hungries’. They spend most of their time in a dormant trance, but the smell of uninfected blood sends them wild and chompy. Melanie and her classmates are children who are infected but ‘normal’ — unless provoked, when they too turn into ravenous fiends — and they may hold the key to a cure. They live on an army base, but, when it’s overrun by hungries, Melanie and a ragtag group of survivors — including Paddy Considine’s sergeant, teacher Gemma Arterton, and scientist Glenn Close, who’s obsessed with finding a cure at any cost — hit the road in search of safe haven.

On the road

In the A.V. Club’s review, Katie Rife asserts that “once this initial premise is revealed and The Girl With All The Gifts leaves the base… this intriguing twist on zombie lore becomes subsumed by postapocalyptic road-trip cliché.” Well, yes and no. There are certainly some familiar beats, but I felt like those just gave a narrative shape to contain otherwise interesting ideas. I haven’t seen enough zombie movies to vouch for The Girl With All The Gifts being 100% original, but I’d certainly not come across some of its ideas before. That goes for both the way it handles the zombie action (though, of course, there are only so many ways you can depict the monstrous undead) and the social commentary, which, as much as anything, tackles the way children and adults interrelate.

The eponymous girl is fantastic — Melanie is an interesting character, and an interesting type of character too. She’s fantastically played by Sennia Nanua, who may be a talent to watch out for in future (I say ‘may’ because, per IMDb, she’s not got anything else coming up). The more familiar supporting cast are as superb as you’d expect. Glenn Close brings plausibility to what could’ve just been an Evil Scientist role, while Gemma Arterton provides the film’s heart as a motherly teacher. Paddy Considine’s role is best appreciated once all is said and done — he seems to be just the gruff soldier type, but snippets of his backstory are revealed right up until the end, revealing new layers to his character.

Special school

Director Colm McCarthy, a veteran of copious amounts of British TV (Spooks, Doctor Who, Sherlock, Ripper Street, Peaky Blinders, and much, much more), keeps the focus on the characters while also giving their world a fantastic sense of scale. The film was made for a pittance (for comparison, it cost about half as much as a single episode of Game of Thrones) but looks incredible. There may be some blurry edges on green screen shots and things like that, but I’ve seen less convincing effects work in movies that cost 50 times as much. Some of the footage was captured by flying over the remains of a town left to rot after Chernobyl, which lends a veracity to the post-apocalyptic vistas (and presumably saved a tonne on CGI). In terms of places you can actually take actors, it was partly filmed in Birmingham, which seems to be becoming a go-to location for dystopian / post-apocalyptic cityscapes (Spielberg’s forthcoming Ready Player One also shot there last year).

The zombie genre is an overcrowded one nowadays, even if you exclude the innumerable direct-to-DVD knock-offs, but there’s still space for well-made movies that can put the familiar tropes to greater use. The Girl with All the Gifts is an impressively mounted and performed production, and is worth watching if just for that horror-thriller kick. However, it also has something to say. I imagine Romero would be pleased.

5 out of 5

The Girl with All the Gifts is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Advertisements

The Survivalist (2015)

2016 #150
Stephen Fingleton | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 18

The Survivalist’70s self-sufficiency sitcom The Good Life meets bleak post-apocalypse drama The Road* in this technically-science-fiction dramatic thriller, the BAFTA-nominated debut of writer-director Stephen Fingleton.

A man (Martin McCann) lives in a woodland cabin, farming just enough for himself and fending off raiders. When a woman (Olwen Fouéré) and her daughter (Mia Goth) turn up, they build an uneasy alliance in spite of mutual suspicion.

With a Malickian eye for both nature and pace, it has a grim plausibility about the end of the world and, more than that, the fundamentals of human nature. Depressing but truthful — and, post-Trump, possibly prescient!

4 out of 5

* I’ve still not actually seen The Road so this comparison may be faulty, but it was the first super-grim (so I’ve heard) post-apocalyptic drama that came to mind. ^

A Boy and His Dog (1975)

2016 #19
L.Q. Jones | 90 mins | streaming | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Based on a novella by esteemed author Harlan Ellison, this is a low-budget sci-fi comedy-drama about a horny teenager (Don Johnson) and his telepathic dog (voiced by Tim McIntire) surviving in a post-apocalyptic wilderness, who are lured into a weird underground world. It’s a film fuelled by weirdness, left-field ideas, and a controversial tragicomic ending.

It’s a “not for everyone” kind of film that, I must confess, I found hard to properly engage with thanks to watching the poor quality, overly dark, windowboxed copy that used to be hosted on Amazon Prime Instant Video.

One to try again someday, maybe.

3 out of 5

Turbo Kid (2015)

2016 #64
François Simard, Anouk Whissell & Yoann-Karl Whissell | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Canada & New Zealand / English | 15

I’ve observed before that the ’80s seem to be everywhere in film these days, and here’s another example: Turbo Kid is in every respect an homage to low-budget ’80s genre fare.

Set in the future year 1997, after an unspecified apocalypse has devastated the world and made water a rare commodity, orphaned teen The Kid (Munro Chambers) survives by scavenging junk and enjoying the comic book adventures of BMX-riding superhero Turbo Rider. The Kid encounters and accidentally befriends the quirkily obsessive Apple (Laurence Leboeuf), who is promptly kidnapped by agents of water-controlling maniac Zeus (Michael Ironside). While escaping the kidnappers, the Kid stumbles across the remains of the real Turbo Rider, including his energy gauntlet weapon — perfect for rescuing his new friend and living his dreams.

All of which is semi-incidental, because the point of Turbo Kid is not this storyline, but the genre and era elements that have been used to build it, and the stylistic elements that have been cribbed to execute it. I can’t cite many specific points of reference, because I’m not au fait enough with the kind of cheapo, grindhouse-y, watched-on-video-by-’80s-kids genre films that the film’s trio of writer-directors are riffing off (beyond the obvious “Mad Max on BMXs”, one reviewer’s observance of which is regularly featured on the film’s posters and DVD/Blu-ray covers), but the general feel of those kind of films is certainly evoked. It’s there in the bonkers plot; the bizarre characters, like a kick-ass arm-wrestling-champion cowboy (Aaron Jeffery); the post-apocalyptic world that’s just a quarry somewhere; and the very gory practical special effects. Very, very gory. Gleefully, perversely gory. It’s so over-the-top that it’s not genuinely disgusting, of course, but it’s certainly over the top. Way over the top. At times, inventively, hilariously over the top.

Then there’s the score, which is of course all ’80s synths, in a similar style to the score of The Guest. Unfortunately, the score is often indiscriminately applied, like someone composed a generic ’80s score and then slapped it on with minimal regard to what was occurring on screen, meaning some moments fly past without the requisite emphasis. But perhaps this was deliberate — I can well believe that’s what cheapo efforts of the era did, and doing it here is a deliberate reference. This is a bit of a problem with the whole film: points where you can’t be sure if it’s being deliberately wonky or poorly-done as part of the homage, or if there’s some tweaking required. The pace could certainly do with some attention, especially early on. It’s only 93 minutes long, but it would be even better if it was only 85.

However, when it’s on form, there’s a lot of fun to be had with Turbo Kid. I imagine its greatest admirers will be those who lived through and enjoyed the era it’s acting as tribute to, but it’s also entertaining for those who have a broad-strokes familiarity with that period. Although some tightening and polishing would make it even more effective, viewers happy to indulge in its self-consciously retro mindset should find enough to like, and may also consider this score a little harsh:

3 out of 5

Turbo Kid is available on Netflix UK from today.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

2015 #142
George Miller | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | Australia & USA / English | 15 / R

After a decades-long diversion into children’s movies like Babe: Pig in the City and Happy Feet, director George Miller here returns to the post-apocalyptic action series that made his name, and in the process managed to create a blockbuster that was not only critically acclaimed and well-received by audiences, but looks set to be a major award season contender too.

The story sees future drifter and sometime-hero Max (now played by Tom Hardy) arrive in a town ruled by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who keeps the populace in check by controlling the flow of water. He’s also created a heavily caste society, including suicidal warriors like Nux (Nicholas Hoult) and his Five Wives (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoë Kravitz, Abbey Lee Kershaw, Courtney Eaton), who he keeps locked away for breeding purposes. During a routine run for oil, Joe’s best driver, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), veers off course, and it’s soon discovered it’s a bid for freedom with the wives. Joe and his amassed forces give chase. For the rest of the film.

You can certainly watch Fury Road as just a two-hour chase and (presuming you like action antics) get something out of it. The volume of action, the style with which it’s executed, and the impressive audacity of the stuntwork, all mean the film functions on a purely visceral level. That said, the action sequences are almost more incredible for how they were achieved than for how they’re presented in the finished film. The end product is perhaps a little too frenetic, the CG boosts a little too heavy-handed — all the talk of “doing it all for real” may be more or less true, but it feels like an awful lot of that ‘reality’ has been augmented with wire/rig removal and the compositing of multiple practically-performed stunts into single shots. The end result is unquestionably better than empty pure-CGI mayhem, but the awe-inspiring impressiveness of the stunt performers’ work is better conveyed in the special features than the film itself.

I say that, but the finished film is visually stunning on two levels: cinematography and editing. It was shot by John Seale, and Miller had him amp up the saturation. The point was to do the opposite of most post-apocalyptic blockbusters, which are normally desaturated to heck, and it indeed creates something strikingly different. Conversely, Miller has intimated the ideal version of the movie is in black and white with no dialogue, just the score — completely visually-focused storytelling. I have a feeling he’s right, or that it would at least work well. Some nuance would be lost, but all the major plot points and character arcs would be followable.

This is in part thanks to Margaret Sixel’s editing. Chosen precisely because she’d never edited action before, Sixel brings classical touches to the work — like eye trace and crosshair framing — that keep the film exceptionally followable even in the midst of some fast cutting. The one poor choice, in my opinion, is the occasional use of a ‘step’-y effect, which just makes it look like you’re streaming on a not-quite-fast-enough connection or watching a badly-encoded pirate downloaded. I thought it might’ve been a badly produced Blu-ray at first, but apparently it was like this in cinemas too.

For those after more than just action and visuals, the film does have something to offer — despite what you might’ve heard. I think some more dismissive viewers miss it because, a) you don’t expect it, and b) it’s achieved so economically. The characters, relationships, and situations are quickly sketched in, be it through well-placed snatches of dialogue or with purely visual storytelling, but all are deftly executed. That it doesn’t expound on these at length, or linger on their detail, means you have to pay attention to get the most out of that side of the film. I guess some would counter that with, “you have to look hard because you’re reading something that isn’t there,” but I refute that. That it doesn’t spell everything out at length, or hammer home its points and themes heavy-handedly, is a good thing.

Relatedly, the Mad Max series has always been concerned with legend and mythology, both its own and the classical ideas of such. The latter informs the general style and shape of the narratives: these are legends of heroism, perhaps passed down orally from one teller to the next, emphasising the scale of the derring-do. This endures even though Max is, in some respects, the supporting lead in his own film (it even uses the old Towering Inferno left-low/right-high billing at the start for Hardy and Theron). As for the series’ own mythology, that’s well continued here, with significant additions to Max’s storied array of characters and situations: Immortan Joe, Imperator Furiosa, the Five Wives, the War Boys…

With all that considered, that Fury Road is only the second best film in the Mad Max series is merely testament to the enduring excellence of the first sequel. However, there’s possibly an element of expectation in this opinion: I expected basically nothing of Mad Max 2, particularly after I had mixed feelings about the first film (even though the sequel’s fame and acclaim is greater). Fury Road, on the other hand, has been relentlessly hyped by critics and viewers alike ever since it came out — a very different starting perspective. How much effect did this have? Impossible to say. A true comparison would necessitate watching them back-to-back in a few months, or even years, divorced of that initial build-up. Even then I’d be carrying in my memories of my initial viewings. Point being: it’s impossible to be entirely objective; to divorce a film (or films) from some kind of personal context. (Ooh, that turned a bit philosophical, didn’t it?)

Whatever. There can be no doubt that Fury Road is an exceptional achievement in visuals-driven action-adventure moviemaking, which merits its inclusion in discussions of 2015’s finest works of cinema.

5 out of 5

For my review of the “Black & Chrome” version of Fury Road, look here.

Mad Max: Fury Road placed 6th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

2015 #125
George Miller & George Ogilvie | 107 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 15 / PG-13

The third (and, for 30 years, final) Mad Max movie sees the titular post-apocalyptic drifter (Mel Gibson) rock up at last-outpost-of-humanity Bartertown in search of his pilfered car and camels. Max finds himself dragged before the town’s ruler, Aunty (Tina Turner), who has a job for him: kill the mutinous overseer of the city’s power supply, Master Blaster. As payment, she’ll arrange for the return of his belongings. The only conditions are he can’t reveal Aunty has employed him, and he has to do it in a fair fight in the town’s arena of combative justice — the Thunderdome. And then the story goes beyond that, funnily enough.

Writer/director/creator George Miller hadn’t intended to make a third Mad Max film, but when he conceived a story about a man stumbling across a gang of kids in a post-apocalyptic world, someone suggested that man should be Max, and Beyond Thunderdome was born. That might explain why the end result feels a bit like two different movies stuck together: the very Mad Max-y first part in Bartertown awkwardly transitions into the society-of-kids segment, before the two clash for a Mad Max 2-emulating chase-through-the-desert climax. It might not make for the smoothest throughline — the movie almost stops and starts again — but at least it exposes us to a different facet of the series’ post-apocalyptic Australia.

Not everyone agrees; indeed, I hadn’t realised quite how poorly regarded Beyond Thunderdome was by many fans (though not critics, who generally liked it). Reading up, there are some genuine criticisms — like that stop-start plot, or the kids’ cod-babyspeak dialogue — but an awful lot of it boils down to childish “it’s a PG-13 and I wanted R-rated violence” reactions. Which is kinda ironic. I have to say, I didn’t even notice the change in level until I read those comments afterwards. The film still reaches a 15 certificate in the UK, so clearly it isn’t toned down that much. And the lack of visible blood doesn’t mean it lacks creativity: Roger Ebert described the Thunderdome duel as “the first really original movie idea about how to stage a fight since we got the first karate movies”, and he may well be right.

The changes do stretch beyond the level of violence, with a slightly slicker feel to the filmmaking. This is also viewed negatively, many attributing it to a reported influx of US funding that also led to the PG-13 and the casting of Tina Turner. Personally, I saw it more as part of Miller’s development as a filmmaker: Mad Max 2 is appreciably ‘slicker’ than Mad Max, after all. Some call Beyond Thunderdome “Indiana-Jones-ified”, though. I can see the similarities, but I didn’t find it so different from the previous Max film that it really bothered me.

And from a very personal, very 2015 point of view, Mad Max 2 has already earmarked itself a place on my year-end top ten, and if Fury Road lives up to the hype then it will surely prebook a slot too, so it’s probably for the best that Beyond Thunderdome isn’t quite up to that standard or my top ten would look a little bit weighted.

Nonetheless, I very much enjoyed Beyond Thunderdome. The Bartertown stuff works incredibly well, and a community of children who survived the apocalypse without an adult influence is also an interesting concept. It feels a bit like two Mad Max short stories that have been forced to coexist because neither was enough to sustain an entire feature, but at least neither part feels unduly padded, meaning the narrative keeps on rolling. It doesn’t hit the same heights as the exceptional Mad Max 2 — especially with a climax that invites a direct comparison, and is good but not as good — but, as a post-apocalyptic action-adventure movie in its own right, it’s a good film.

4 out of 5

The fourth Mad Max movie, Fury Road, is released in the UK on digital platforms today, and on DVD and Blu-ray on October 5th.

Mad Max 2 (1981)

aka The Road Warrior

2015 #42
George Miller | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 18 / R

Mad Max 2Roaming the outback of a gasoline-desperate post-apocalyptic Australia, “Mad” Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) comes across a commune-like oil refinery, whose inhabitants are under siege by a brutally violent gang. Max strikes a bargain: he’ll help them escape with their oil, in exchange for a tank full for himself.

I’m not going to be the first to point out that, in terms of its plot, Mad Max 2 is essentially a Western: a drifter comes across a small community under siege and agrees to defend them purely out of self interest. Of course, the whole “post-apocalyptic wasteland battle for car fuel” isn’t such a traditional genre element. But let’s not get into a debate about whether a film has to be set in the Old West to be considered a Western (though my verdict is it does — flip it around: no one calls The Magnificent Seven a samurai movie because it took its plot from Seven Samurai, do they?) Anyway, the advantage of transplanting the storyline to a new time and place is it makes it feel moderately fresh. There’s an unpredictability to who people will side with and when, which, to be honest, is considerably less unpredictable when you spot the genre parallels.

With such a staple story, the film’s real delights are to be found elsewhere. The design work is first rate, whether that’s the scary bondage-themed gang or the array of vehicles that populate both sides of the conflict. The location allows for some grand scenery — I suppose the oil refinery set is quite modest, really, but place it in the middle of nowhere with cars swarming around it like insects and it looks epic. Without meaning to spoil anything, its ultimate fate is definitely momentous.

Mad to the boneThe most memorable part, however, is the climax. They escape the oil refinery, Max driving the tanker — fitted out with weaponry and defences — and the gang give chase. An almighty action sequence follows, a speeding battle through the outback. It feels wrong to just call it “an action sequence”, like that’s selling it short. You get the sense that this is why the movie exists; that co-writer/director George Miller’s goal with the entire rest of the film has been to get us to this point. It’s not just “the climax”, it’s “the third act”, and it’s stunning — the choreography of it, the editing, the stunts, as dozens of vehicles chase each other, people run around on top of them, jump between them… I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say it must be one of the greatest action sequences ever committed to film. One of the reasons Fury Road looks so good is the trailers seem to suggest it’s this sequence turned into an entire movie, and I’d have no problem with that (maybe that’s just the trailer highlighting the action; either way, even critics love the result).

Mad Max 2 cherry-picks some of the best aspects of Westerns and post-apocalyptic movies, combines them with tightly-constructed, heart-pumping action scenes, and produces a sci-fi-action-Western of the highest, most entertaining calibre. After the first Mad Max, I sort of wondered why the franchise was so beloved. The sequel is the answer.

5 out of 5

Mad Max: Fury Road is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.

Mad Max 2 placed 2nd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.