by Matt Boyd Smith
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s post-Governator career has been comprised of films that are at least interesting and worth your time even if they haven’t been particularly great. The Last Stand, the benign action-thriller from Korean director Jee-woon Kim (I Saw the Devil), gets by on its imported Asian action stylistics and pure adrenaline, the long-awaited team-up with Stallone, The Escape Plan (Mikael Håfstrom) is fun but forgettable, and last year’s Sabotage is an otherwise standard dirty cop yarn with some inventive twists and high-energy direction from David Ayer. But now with Maggie, a slow-moving and surprisingly emotional zombie tale from first-time director Henry Hobson, we have a film where the action superstar has ventured into uncharted waters and maybe discovered some long-dormant acting chops that got buried deep in Schwarzenegger’s pectorals somewhere around the time he was cast in the first Terminator and began playing emotionless killing machines in nearly every film from then on. Buoyed by some rather poignant moments with co-star Abigail Breslin as his viral daughter and the heretofore-unseen tears of Schwarzenegger himself, Maggie still isn’t the great film he’s bound to make in this period of his career, but it reaches far beyond its generic roots and mostly succeeds.
In a scenario of near-future apocalyptica we are by now more than familiar with, a deadly virus has decimated the human race and caused the dead to come back to life and consume the living. The death and reanimation of those afflicted by the “necroambulist” virus takes some time to occur, and Maggie (Breslin), the daughter of Kansas farmer Wade Vogel (Schwarzenegger), who has been bitten, is remanded to the custody of her father until the time at which she turns and must be turned over to quarantine. That basic set-up is pretty much the whole of the film’s plot, though the story it tells is a thoughtful rumination on the nature of life and death, a horrifying parable about the inability to save our loved one’s from a nasty end either way, and a distinctly low-key and mostly action-less star vehicle for the aging Schwarzenegger, now 67. The film plays like an hour and a half funeral dirge, marching toward the horrible ending we all know is coming when Wade will have to reconcile with the fact his daughter is no longer human. In that sense, Maggie is a thoroughly depressing take on the zombie sub-genre, subverting audience expectations at many turns on both a generic level and, due to the fact that with a single scene in which Wade stands up to a local police deputy intent on taking Maggie to quarantine early, on the basis of our expectations given the film’s star.
I got the sense from watching Maggie that it is the latter subversion which is most on its mind. We see a side of Schwarzenegger we’ve never seen before in this film, complete with genuine emotionality that strips him of his typical acting tools and rendering him a soulful shadow of his former self. In his companionship with his daughter in her final days, we see the weariness in Wade’s eyes, and the sadness that saddles him with guilt that there’s nothing he can do to save his daughter from what will happen any day now. Schwarzenegger may never fully escape from his image as a guy who would rather shoot someone with a rocket launcher and move on with needing to save the world already, but here he gives a pretty convincing and stripped-down performance that I honestly never saw coming. It functions as a reflective moment for his career and screen persona that is not entirely unlike those latter-year performances by Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights and Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven and Gran Torino. While it’s arguably not as effective as either of those films in re-contextualizing all that came before, Maggie nonetheless makes Schwarzenegger into a compelling screen presence now faced with the reality of his own age and the legacy he will leave behind. For a zombie film that’s about the same precarious nature of one’s life, it’s a reflexive moment that largely works.
As the film makes its way toward that final, terrible ending, we venture with Maggie into a world where her friends still care about her and her high school sweetheart is also afflicted with the virus and will soon reach the point of no return himself. We also encounter the horrible reality of the quarantine, not on screen, but as a presence that casts a pall over the film, and which provides a serious conundrum for Wade’s choices as Maggie’s condition continues to deteriorate. The conditions at quarantine are described in nightmarish terms, and to top it off, the “cocktail” given to the infected as a means of euthanizing them is apparently quite painful, contrary to the spin put on it by the authorities. Wade is faced with a difficult choice: either give Maggie over to quarantine, kill her himself with the same cocktail that could be a horrible way for her to die, or kill her quickly with a bullet to the head. There is no hope for a cure, there is no hope that Maggie’s condition may take a turn for the better. Like I said, it’s a long, slow, dirge to the end of Maggie’s life. It’s like a Terrence Malick tone poem rendered watchable by the fact that it has a plot, has actual dialogue, and doesn’t feel like it takes forever to sit through.
I won’t say that the film is amazing or life-changing or anything like that. But it is very good, and it’s worth your time. As a reflexive turn by Schwarzenegger it’s a must-watch. As a zombie movie it’s less successful. It does very little new or innovative with the genre other than drain most of the action from it. Yes, there are zombie kills, and yes, there are zombie attacks, but the film doesn’t focus on them. This is a movie about a father and his daughter, who is dying, slowly, and the lengths he will go to protect her and let her know she is not alone. It is very sad and mournful and human. If that sounds like your thing, give it a shot.
3.5 out of 5 stars