When you hear that our favorite T-800 is in a zombie movie, it’s tempting to yell “Arnold Schwarzenegger is back in the action/horror genre!” . . . Well, sort of. Except instead of a horror it’s more of a drama. And instead of the action hero he’s the dad.
And that’s all a bit odd, but the truth is that those two facts really intrigued me. I wondered if it could be that this would open up a bit of a new realm for Arnold, and if we could see better, deeper things from him in the future, or at least something more intriguing than another Expendables movie.
As I mentioned, Maggie is a drama, but it’s probably more appropriately described as a tragedy. The tone from beginning to end is one of utter darkness, despite the fact that this zombie wasteland isn’t really a wasteland at all. Many will bill the film as post-apocalyptic – and indeed the trailers did portray it at least partially in that manner – but it really isn’t. The zombie virus has eliminated much of the population, but there is still a fully functioning society, and the police have been trained to respond to cases of infection. They give the subject a certain amount of time with their loved ones, as the disease progresses somewhat slowly, before taking them to quarantine. There’s no cure for the virus, at least not yet, and victims to eventually denigrate to the zombie status that has been popularized by modern zombie lore.
With nigh so much as a happy moment in the film, Maggie opens with Wade arriving at the hospital to see his daughter, played by Abigail Breslin, for the first time since she’s contracted the virus. That is the film’s first weakness: a lack of build-up or appreciation of the pre-existing relationship. From the film’s very beginning, you’re playing catch-up, looking for reasons to care about this girl. What is it that makes her tragedy so significant when the whole world is dying? What is that makes her–oh look, the Terminator killing zombies!
That’s about the first half-hour. But in all fairness, it does recuperate and make us care about this girl. In fact, it manages to do that without a whole lot of forced backstory or narration. We don’t get a lot of history in this family, but what we do get is a very compelling performance from a mature Abigail Breslin, perhaps her most-so yet. It’s also a bit refreshing to see how veteran Schwarzenegger steps back and allows her to have the spotlight. He truly is a supporting cast member here, impactful as the loving father, but never becoming larger than his role (or at least to the extent it’s possible for an icon like Schwarzenegger to do so).
And so, with that relationship firm and established, it’s important to recognize what this is and isn’t trying to do. I’ve been critical before of certain elements of zombie stories, particularly The Walking Dead, for featuring grotesque blood and gore for its own sake, and nurturing a culture that celebrates and enjoys the most graphic guts you can get on-screen. That is not the case here. This isn’t a zombie flick relishing in violence. There’s no gun-toting last stand, no blood-spewing slaughter. Really, this is about a girl with a terminal illness, and the struggle of her father to provide what she needs. It’s a portrayal of love in the worst of circumstnaces–a father who loves his daughter at the expense of all else, even risking tension with the local authorities because of it.
That’s beautiful–but that’s the concept. Its aims are high, and while it should be commended for reaching there, it should be noted that it doesn’t quite meet them. The emotion is there, and the Breslin/Schwarzenegger combo is more convincing than I ever thought it would be, giving me hopes that the two will work together again in the future. But in the end, it embraces the same worldview that so many of these films do: that the world is in a dark, lost place without any real hope of ever going back. On the one hand that can be a profound exposition on the state of the fallen world, of how sin, like a disease, destroys everything in its path and leaves its victims without hope of getting themselves out. On the other hand, however, entrance into a dark world without real semblance of hope really only serves to further the notions of a philosophy based on nihilism, the meaninglessness of the world.
And so, for all its attempts to be different, Maggie turns out to be a slight crossover film that turns out to be mostly the same. It ultimately fails to do anything spectacular, being too much a zombie film to be a powerful drama, and far too slow to be a true zombie film. It seems that in seeking out the impact of the zombie virus on the common family, it failed to show anything meaningful that Maggie did with her final days. It’s a true shame, but despite meaningful performances from Breslin and Schwarzenegger, it’s really nothing more than a slow, depressing movie without a whole lot of redeeming qualities.