Tuesday 30 June 2015

Review: We may have reached 'peak zombie' but Maggie – starring Arnold Schwarzenegger – has both depth and humanity

**This review contains spoilers in its final paragraph**

Director: Henry Hobson
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson
Running time: 95 mins

Oh dear god, there’s hundreds of them. Don’t look back, just run. So many, so many… overwhelming... no escape from them... they’re bloody everywhere. Yes, I think it is safe to say I’ve had my fill of zombie-related movies, TV shows, comic-books, novels and video games. We have reached peak zombie and the walking dead (and, indeed, The Walking Dead) have delighted me quite enough, thanks.

Unfortunately, while there’s a buck to be earned and a sub-genre to be milked dry, the conveyor belt dedicated to churning out all things undead and Romero-esque continues at full pelt. Hence Maggie, which stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as Wade Vogel, a farmer whose teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin) has a zombie bite and is now slowly, irrevocably turning into one of them. At what point will Arnie say “Hasta La Vista, Maggie” and pump her full of lead as the local coppers are pressuring him to? Or will the big galoot fail in his duty, allowing Mags to have his wife (Joely Richardson) and two younger kids for breakfast, lunch and dinner?

Despite my reservations, Henry Hobson’s film succeeds in doing something a little bit different to the usual ‘survivors band together and are slowly killed off either by the undead or each other’ routine. Maggie is set after Zombageddon and humanity is slowly recovering. Those infected and ‘on the turn’ are quarantined, although, bizarrely, the doctors at the medical facility where Wade finds his daughter hand her over knowing full well she’ll turn into a flesh-munching monster in the coming days. It’s about as naive as returning a member of ISIS to his family on the off-chance he might see the error of his ways and set up a splinter faction called NICESIS dedicated to popping to the shops for old ladies and feeding stray kittens.

Because the fight against the zombie hordes has been largely won, we don’t see many of them and that’s a very good thing. When the undead do pop up it makes their appearance that much more impactful and chilling. In fact, one of the strongest scenes comes fairly early on when a zombified father and daughter stray onto the Vogels’ land. It turns out Wade knew these people – now human-shaped necrotic meat – and you really feel his horror and sorrow. It isn’t the fact they are now wretchedly degraded killing machines that we first notice but the fact they were once just a dad and his little kid. In its desire to make everything bigger, scarier and crazier, the zombie genre has lost those small and personal moments but Maggie is full of them.

Whilst admirable, Hobson’s low-key approach does mean his film is slow at times. Perhaps not Walking Dead season two slow but certainly in the same ball park. The longueurs are especially noticeable whenever Richardson’s character Caroline is on screen, an underwritten part (this is the Arnie and Abi show!) and one with which the British actress clearly struggles. The kindest thing you could say about her accent is that it is recognisably American. From precisely where in America is another matter though.

In place of Richardson, I’d like to have seen more of Maggie interacting with her friends – at least one of whom has also been bitten. There’s a powerful scene late in the film in which she shares a kiss with the boy and it’s a perfectly-judged melancholy moment full of ‘what might have been’. This is the life Maggie should have had; this is the life the zombie plague has now stolen from her.

Demonstrably, Maggie is a zombie film but you won’t find a single mention of the z-word anywhere in its 95-minute running time. You see, these aren’t zombies; they are victims of the Necroambulist virus (it’s so clumsy, even typing it made me wince). I’ll never know why creators do this. Look, you know they’re zombies, your cast and crew know they’re zombies, your audience knows they’re zombies, critics and bloggers like me know they’re zombies, my cat and next door’s goldfish know their zombies. So why not just call them zombies, eh? Is it merely a screenwriter trying to be clever (and failing), or is there still a variation on the old ‘cultural cringe’ at play here – despite the rise and rise of nerd culture, it seems copping to the fact you’re making a zombie flick is still a bit embarrassing to some.

It’s refreshing to see Schwarzenegger for once playing a human being rather than a cartoonish facsimile of one. He’s pretty good here, actually – still a badass (what were you expecting, flower arranging and Reiki?) but a vulnerable, sympathetic one. He conveys a palpable sense of loss as he sees his daughter slipping away from him piece by piece. And that’s the most notable part of the film – it’s rare to see the ‘zombism as terminal illness’ analogy explored this deftly.

Hobson brings a forensic quality to Maggie’s deterioration – we see her mind, body and humanity surrendering itself to the affliction in small, heartbreaking increments. One of the strongest scenes sees her freak out when she discovers a maggot feasting on her rotting flesh, in another she cuts off one of her fingers after accidentally breaking it. Her shift away from humanity takes a while, and it’s painful and it’s ugly but Breslin – her character battling every inch of the way – sells it all very convincingly. 

Considering he has the most prominent and celebrated movie action hero of the last 40 years as his main star, Hobson sidesteps the obvious fighting ’n’ shooting ending. Forget Arnie, Maggie is all about a brave young woman taking control of a terrible situation and refusing to surrender to it without a fight. Ultimately, though, she loses, accepts her fate and leaves this life entirely on her own terms. The film is all the stronger for it.

Rating: WWW

Maggie is in UK cinemas from July 24


WWWW = Wonderful
WWW = Worthwhile
WW = Watchable
W = Woeful

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