Last year, some eyebrows were raised when the zombie movie “Maggie,” originally scheduled to premiere as part of the Midnight Madness lineup at the Toronto International Film Festival, was pulled at the last minute, when Lionsgate acquired the movie just before the fest. And while some wondered if it was an indication of the film’s quality, it was actually a canny move on behalf of the studio. “Maggie” is not your standard zombie movie, and while it tantalizingly puts action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger into the lead role, the film is actually low on setpieces, and instead is a ponderous, sombre take on the genre that may leave those looking for a traditional horror flick disappointed.
The rules of the game are set up fairly quickly: as per usual, an outbreak has occurred, resulting in scores of the population becoming infected and turning into dangerous, lurching, human hungry undead (the z-word is never uttered). While a cure has yet to be found, there is a general understanding about how quickly it takes for someone to become fully infected by this deadly disease. And as that time draws closer, those who are about to lose their humanity and get overtaken by the illness are taken to quarantine by the authorities. And thus, time is a precious commodity, especially if your loved ones becoming afflicted, and for Wade (Schwarzenegger), the clock is ticking.
As the film opens, he’s reunited after two weeks of searching with his titular daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin), who wound up getting on the wrong end of a zombie bite. The family doctor fudges his report about just how advanced Abigail’s illness is so Wade can spend more time with her before he must face giving up her up. And so he decamps with Maggie to the farm where he lives with Caroline (Joely Richardson), his second wife, who has graciously sent her own two young kids to live safely with her sister, so they can look over Wade’s daughter.
And this is perhaps the cleverest aspect of the script by John Scott 3. Ultimately, “Maggie” is concerned with what comes with the decision to take a life. While we have seen scores of movies about the undead in recent years, with many of them stacking up the body count for pure entertainment value, this film finds Wade, Caroline, and even Maggie herself, grappling with the choice of what to do when the fateful moment arrives when the young girl can’t control her urges. Will Wade be able to hand over his daughter to the authorities when he’s been told that quarantine will only guarantee Maggie a horrible, painful death? Is Caroline’s pragmatism and fear about Maggie’s condition only heightened because it’s not her own flesh and blood child? Or is Wade being too naive in thinking he can control whatever comes next? These are all bigger thematic concerns than you would usually see in this kind of genre movie, and yet, “Maggie” can’t sustain on those ideas alone.
Henry Hobson, a title designer making his feature film debut, leans heavily on mood, almost to the point of redundancy. It nearly becomes comical at how often ominous thunder is heard in the distance, even though it never actually rains. And while the texture in the script from John Scott 3 is interesting, the few notes it hits doesn’t seem to justify a full length running time. In some ways, “Maggie” feels like a moderate length short, strained to meet a 90 minute movie. But it’s the cast who keep the slowly paced movie engaging. Believe it or not, Schwarzenegger is very good in what might his most subdued, dialed down, quiet role to date. While he won’t be giving up his action mantle anytime soon, it suggests that once his body can’t take being thrown around any more, he’ll be able to transition to different kinds of parts quite easily and perhaps surprisingly effectively. As for Breslin, she’s very good as a young woman who is facing an early end to any kind of normal, human life.
“Maggie” enters the canon with its own distinct place by using zombie-ism as a metaphor for terminal disease. And while it’s a conceptually sound idea, the execution is one that is respectable if not particularly exciting. Still, with this debut picture Hobson shows promise as a filmmaker who could possibly carve his own niche within in the realm of genre filmmaking. He certainly doesn’t give in to traditional expectations here, and while uneven, that approach is what makes “Maggie” something individual and special. [C+]