Review: Maggie Is an Imperfect But Enjoyable Zombie Drama
Maggie, starring Abigail Breslin, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Joely Richardson, is a movie that tries to take the zombie craze and boil it down to its most personal, human elements—to varying degrees of success. For a movie that tries so hard not to be a “zombie movie,” Maggie as at its best when it embraces its natural sense of suspense.
This review will contain mild spoilers, so I’ll start with who should go see the movie when it makes its limited theatrical release on May 8, in case that’s all you’re looking for. If you’re into zombie movies and don’t mind a bit of ~~~feelings~~~ in your entertainment, you’ll probably enjoy Maggie about as much as I did, which was enough that I’d say you should at least give it a try if it’s playing somewhere nearby.
Sadly, I wouldn’t say that it’s a must-see that you should go out of your way to get to. I doubt you’ll walk out of it thinking it was an amazing reinvention of the genre, but you’ll probably be glad you saw it if you don’t go in expecting too much. Good, but not great. Like, but not love. That’s the feeling I had towards it on my way out of the theater, and I had really wanted to love it. If you’re only into action-packed Zombie stuff, this movie is not for you. At all.
If you’re looking for straight drama, you—expectedly—won’t find that here, either. Unfortunately, that’s where the movie makes its biggest mistake: it tries too hard to eschew the usual zombie trappings and go towards the dramatic side, when its moments of suspense and fear only serve to heighten the viewer’s sense of what the characters are going through. Not that the movie took itself too seriously—I’m not asking for action and schlock—but it didn’t let its dual genres feed off of each other the way they needed to for it to work. A straight drama with a zombie background just doesn’t work, and too often Maggie veers in that direction.
In the film, an outbreak of the “necroambulist” virus has left the world—and plenty of its inhabitants—in shambles, but when the story of Wade (Schwarzenegger), Caroline (Richardson), and Maggie’s (Breslin) family picks up, the virus is mostly under control as people work towards rebuilding their lives. Anyone who’s been bitten must eventually be taken to “quarantine” as they degenerate into a zombie over a period of weeks to keep the virus contained. Sadly, Maggie has been bitten by an infected person and must wait the few weeks as she slowly transforms into one of the walking dead while her family watches helplessly.
Don’t be fooled by Schwarzenegger’s presence—this is very much an indie movie. The pace is very slow, and almost the entire thing takes place at the family’s farm house in middle of nowhere, USA, and the three main actors comprise the bulk of the story with Wade and Maggie’s relationship at the center. And again in terms of handling the acting, don’t be fooled by Schwarzenegger—he pulls off his dramatic role just fine, and Breslin is great in hers, but the movie never gives them the chance they need to really sell their emotions to the audience despite how capable they are of doing it.
It actually plays very much as a first draft; nothing about it is necessarily bad, but it would’ve been significantly better with just a bit of care towards taking the idea of Maggie’s inexorable transformation and restructuring all the other plot elements to fit in with it. Instead, the film skips the beginning of Maggie’s illness and starts with Wade bringing her home after she ran away to hide it. Most of the detail of the dilemma he and Maggie now face is explained in conversations with doctors rather than in interactions with other characters, which takes all the emotions that should slowly evolve over the course of the film and puts them in your face up front, leaving you to feel like, “OK. They’re sad about all that stuff. Now what?”
It completely undercuts a later scene in which Maggie meets up with her friends, and one of them, who’s infected and a bit further along than her, casts doubt on whether quarantine is a place anyone should want to go and generally illustrates the internal struggles of the film’s characters in a much less expository way than all the over-intense doctor lectures. If things had seemed more normal after Maggie first got infected, the scene would be a great turning point and a way to illustrate the challenges Maggie’s family will soon face without over-explaining them.
Maggie’s step-siblings are sent away to live with other family members as soon as she’s brought home with the virus without giving much time to show her normal life with them. There’s an aspect of creeping isolation to Maggie, but it would’ve worked better if it was slowly spaced out over the course of the film instead of starting so abruptly and then not coming up again until Caroline eventually leaves Wade alone with her in the final stages of infection. The isolation was present, but it could’ve had greater impact with a slower, steadier progression.
And that unevenness of pace, with a lot of heaviness up front and then waiting for it to pay off at the end, weighs down the whole movie. The script has the bones in place for what could have been a much more successful end product, but there was still work to be done filling them in properly, which may stem from director Henry Hobson’s desire not to tamper too much with the script. Maggie‘s script was on the movie industry’s “Black List” of best not-yet-produced scripts when Hobson took it up, and when asked at a press conference during the movie’s run at Tribeca Film Festival whether changes had been made to the script after Schwarzenegger signed on, Hobson said that the script hadn’t undergone major changes at all, since it was already so well-received.
In the end, a few rewrites could’ve gone a long way towards making Maggie into a truly great movie. As I mentioned above, when the movie embraces its inner zombie, it works wonderfully. There’s real suspense to be found in not knowing when a sick person who you care about is going to become dangerous or how hard those around her will be willing to fight back when she does. Also, in a movie where the action is downplayed, you really don’t know what’s going to happen next, and that’s much scarier than watching something where you know there are going to be people and zombies getting eaten and shot left and right. It’s a delicate balance to find, but there could’ve been just a bit more horror without crossing the line and losing the suspense.
Still, I really did like the movie. In a film with a premise that borders on farcical, you need great performances to pull it off, and Schwarzenegger and Breslin certainly don’t hold it back—even if the rest of the cast didn’t necessarily match up to their level. Their relationship starts with Wade as the protective father figure, but while that carries through until the end, there’s also a move towards Maggie coming into her own and taking over even as she slowly loses control of herself.
It won’t be the best movie—or even the best zombie movie—you’ve ever seen, but with its faults in mind, hopefully you can appreciate the things it gets right and mourn with me for how great it could’ve been with just a few adjustments.
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