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Educating monsters: ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’ and ‘Life’ both snuff the God-spark

(Life) Columbia Pictures | (The Girl with all the Gifts) Altitude Films
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David Ives takes an interesting look at two movies that reflect the mindset of the times.

Hang out at movie theaters long enough and you start to notice the phenomenon of twin films, two movies with remarkably similar plots or themes that get released at roughly the same time. A few notable examples include Deep Impact and Armageddon (1998), Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down (2013), and Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar (1973). To that ever-growing list, we can now add another pair of twin films, Life and The Girl with All the Gifts.

On the surface, these two movies would seem to have little in common. Life is the new film from director Daniel Espinosa starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ryan Reynolds. It tells the story of a group of scientists aboard the international space station who are tasked with studying the first evidence of extraterrestrial life in the form of a single-celled organism discovered on Mars. Unfortunately, the lifeform doesn’t stay single-celled for long, as it quickly evolves with each new crewmember it dines on.

It’s an overly familiar set-up that’s made mostly watchable by fine performances from the appropriately international cast. It’s a nice touch that each of the crewmembers is played by an actor actually born in the same country as the character. Equally nice is the fact that we’re given lots of quiet moments to get to know these people and their motivations, so they don’t just become boxes to be checked once the creature starts picking them off.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of Life is the way it plays with the tropes of the genre for the first half of its running time. For instance, if you think you know who’s going to die first, think again, because you’re probably wrong. Sadly, though, the film forgets to continue along this line as the climax draws near and it all ends exactly the way you think it’s going to.

Not so The Girl with All the Gifts. Despite being yet another zombie movie, this sophomore feature film from prolific British TV director Colm McCarthy manages to stay fresh and original all the way through to its bitter end. It’s definitely the superior film of the two.

The story opens in the near-future where a fungal infection has turned most of the world’s population into cannibalistic killing machines a la 28 Days Later. The effort to find a cure is led by Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close), a no-nonsense scientist who believes humanity’s last hope lies in a group of children who were born with the infection, but have for the most part maintained their mental capacities. While Caldwell coldly experiments on the children, sympathetic psychologist Helen (Gemma Arterton) attempts to educate the little monsters.

On the cusp of finding the cure, Caldwell’s research facility is overrun by a hoard of Hungries, forcing her, Helen, and a small squad of soldiers to make a run for it. Along for the journey is Melanie (Sennia Nanua), Helen’s star pupil who has developed something of a mother-daughter bond with her teacher. This relationship becomes the heart of the movie, and the reason The Girl with All the Gifts rises above the typical zombie fare. While everyone else views Melanie and the other children as little more than animals, Helen takes the surprisingly pro-life view that they still have dignity as human beings despite their “disabilities.” They are somebody, not just some things.

There is, however, another less palatable underlying theme in The Girl with All the Gifts, one that it happens to share with Life. Though their storylines are wildly different, the threat is fundamentally the same in both films. The characters are faced with a basically unstoppable alien foe that, if not eradicated, will usurp humanity’s place in the natural order. Such a scenario obviously flies in the face of the Church’s teaching that humans occupy a unique place in creation because we are made in the image of our creator. It’s that spark of God in us that makes us special, not our own brains or brawn. But, of course, there appears to be no God in whatever universe these movies take place in, and if there is no creator, then why wouldn’t humans be just another easily replaceable link in the food chain?

Such a bleak Darwinist view of humankind is hardly new to our time, but the close release of two movies with that notion as their central theme suggests such an attitude is percolating in the public consciousness right at this particular moment. If further proof is required that this is indeed the case, keep in mind that War for the Planet of the Apes is only a few short months away. Spoiler: humans aren’t expected to come out on top in that one either.

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