Humanity threatening disasters of debatable evilness are prerequisites for most speculative fiction. Although these stories tend to also include character growth arcs, romances, and some degree of environment survival as well, there is always some looming threat that needs to be defeated. JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings typifies this kind of threat as Sauron is undeniably evil and lacks the kind of moral tension that appear in some other narratives. Tolkien’s trilogy is the story of humanity and the other races of Middle Earth fighting back against that evil until ultimately the world is left to the humans as magic steps back. However, there is a reversal of this narrative where in humanity faces its great threat, one of much more debatable morality, and looses. This is the story in the 2016 film The Girl With All the Gifts which grapples with what will happen when new beings rise up to replace us.
The end of Lord of the Rings is poignant, and powerful because even though the heroes won there is a sense of consequences, of something lost. The elves are leaving, so is Frodo and even the hobbits are being slowly enveloped into the ranks of men. The Third Age of Middle Earth has ended to make way for the Age of Man. This is the kind of melancholy that pervades Tolkien’s work and it is incredibly effective, but it does show a very particular view of humanity’s place. There is a sense of entitlement to the world of Middle Earth, as if the great evil was a product of magic and since that evil is gone it is also time for magic to step aside. I think some of this feeling is tied to the world in which Tolkien was writing, that is in and around the two World Wars. Humanity was definitely seen as flawed, but it was a very particular kind of moral flaw that lead to the carnage of the two wars.
In the present moment we face a different kind of failing in humanity, one that poses a threat to everyone’s survival rather than the extreme moral stakes of the World Wars. Climate change and all the politics surrounding it lead to questions about whether or not humanity is worth saving, if we deserve the kind of heroic measures that the magical peoples of Middle Earth pull off for humanity. So where the complexities of the 20th centuries crisis (which should not be down played, it was a critical moment of history and we should take the time to appreciate the people who fought and died for the world we live in today) become a black and white battle that leaves a near blank slate for humanity to progress from in Lord of the Rings – The Girl With All the Gifts considers the broken world that will be left to those who come after.
There are no real heroes by the end of The Girl with All the Gifts, the teacher figure who begins the story as the protector of the vulnerable protagonist is by the end just a last vestige of defeated humanity, there to stand in for the viewer. Instead it is the zombie hybrids who are left in control after a zombie plague breaks out and the children born of mothers who became zombies existed in a place that is neither human nor monstrous. When Melanie, the little girl who is the narrator and protagonist of the film lights the tower of zombie spores alight and locks the teacher in the pod it is the final moment of humanity’s defeat. Rather than being a film about the heroic quest to find a cure and rebuild it is the story of a new species rising up to take their place. And as the tower of spores burns and destroys any hope reclaiming the world for humans there is a sense that this is a righteous victory on the part of Melanie.
I don’t think the writers and directors are arguing that humanity should be abandoned, nor do I think Tolkien considers morality to be as simplistic as it is in parts of Lord of the Rings. But the contrast between these speculative stories does show a shift in the way creators are envisioning the place of humanity in a world that contains other beings. The Girl With All the Gifts suggest that humans have had their moment with the world, their moment to build a legacy for themselves, but that moment has passed and space needs to be made for what comes next. A more optimistic view would be to find a balancing point between surrender and the domination of Lord of the Rings. The real world doesn’t contain magical beings, or zombies (at least as of yet) but there is a growing environmental crisis and a legacy of colonial abuses around the world that need to be addressed. So perhaps the balancing point is not just about how humans will ensure that the world will still support human life but also about how we got to this moment and moving towards a future on the earth for both people and the natural world.