MAY 10, 2015
Imagine an episode of The Walking Dead where Carl gets bit in the first scene, and the rest of the episode focuses entirely on Rick wrestling with the inevitable as the others keep saying "kill him, now!". It'd probably be one of the best episodes of the series, it would be the one they use when trying to get Andrew Lincoln an award, and for once the dumber audience members might not complain about the lack of zombie action. Unfortunately for Maggie, it's a full length film that amounts to that exact, very minimal plot, and at 90 minutes it's not quite enough to sustain a feature's demands - even if it does have one of the best performances its star has ever given.
Said star is, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a role that could just as easily have been played by George Clooney or Ed Harris or any other elder statesman actor you can think of - there is nothing "Schwarzenegger-ian" about it. Take whatever image you might get in your mind from "a zombie movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger" and I guarantee you won't see anything like it in the film. There are only three traditional (meaning largely anonymous) undead in the film, and while they all die at Arnold's hands, it's not played for action heroics (one of them is actually off-screen, in fact). They simply illustrate the tangible threat of a zombie for anyone who's never seen a zombie movie before, and that's their function - this is not a traditional horror movie. The introduction of the first zombie (in a gas station) is sort of a scary moment, but the rest of the film is straight up drama, with the process of Maggie (Abigail Breslin) slowly turning into a zombie playing out the same way a movie about a person with cancer or Alzheimers or whatever would depict the illness taking over.
It's not the first film to take this approach, nor will it be the last. The appeal is seeing Arnold go through these motions, and I couldn't help but think the movie is 20 years too late. I love that the big guy is taking chances and doing different things at this point in his career, but not only is he too old for the role (Maggie is 16ish and his oldest of three children - he's 65 years old!), but the change of pace would have been more eye-opening had it come along when he was still at the top of his game. We've seen him do the grieving dad thing in other films (including End of Days, his only other horror movie) and we've also seen him take on roles that reduced his usual superhuman stature (Last Stand, for example). Hell, even the new Terminator movie seems to suggest he's past his due date. It'd be more effective and exciting to see him in this state in between, say, True Lies and Eraser, where he'd not only be age appropriate but also the idea of him NOT going around blowing zombies away and quipping would be less of a shock.
It'd also help the fact that the movie itself isn't particularly that novel. Arnold's casting is pretty much the only offbeat choice; the story has no real wrinkles to speak of, and you pretty much know how it'll play out once you've met all of its 7 or 8 characters of note. There are a couple of cops who keep checking in; one is older and a friend to Arnold, the other not as sympathetic and very much gung-ho about killing anyone that's infected as soon as possible. Then there's the neighbor family, where the mom (not infected) hides her zombie husband and daughter, all of whom exist for no other reason than to show Arnold a glimpse of what may happen if he ignores everyone's warnings to bring Maggie to quarantine. Or he could take her out himself, which is the advice he gets from his doctor friend who supplies him the cocktail that will very painfully end her life before she turns and becomes dangerous. It's all stuff we've seen before in some form or other (including on Walking Dead itself), so once the thrill of seeing Arnold going through these motions wears off, we're left with something a bit too threadbare and familiar to really hit the nerves it wants to.
I mean, sure, it gets pretty touching at times; there are a few moments of levity between Arnold (I forget his character's name, not that it matters) and Maggie that are wonderful, and it's also where he's at his best. There's a good one where they make fun of his wife's cooking (Maggie is from his first marriage, the woman is dead), and another later where they talk about her mom and his old truck - these scenes more than make up for the (too) many ones that have Arnold and/or Maggie just sort of wandering or driving around the dying world, with director Henry Hobson indulging in what seems like an obsession with focusing on a random object and leaving everything else in soft focus (including his actors) behind it. This is Hobson's first feature after a lengthy career in both video game trailers and title sequences, and I couldn't help but think he was trying to distance himself from that sort of flashiness by slowing everything to a crawl here. I knew there wouldn't be much action (it's a PG-13 movie, for starters), but I was hoping there would be more to the narrative than what I already knew from its one sentence description.
The script by John Scott 3 also shoots itself in the foot by mentioning something far more interesting that we never get to see - the quarantine lab where infected are sent. Apparently they aren't separated; if you were just bit or just shy of being a drooling full blown zombie, you get thrown in the same room, where they apparently let the problem solve itself by just letting them eat each other. Gruesome, sure, but I can't think of anything that's ever dealt with that sort of scenario (sort of like a prison drama), so it's a shame we only hear about it (practically in passing) instead of seeing it. The ending is also a letdown; I won't spoil the particulars, but there's a perspective shift that actually robs the film and its audience of a final moment with a main character. It sounds weird, but I wanted the ending to devastate me, and the choice they take didn't do that - it just left me kind of with blue balls. There's a fade to white, the sort of one where you know the next thing you'll see is credits, and I almost shouted "Oh come ON!" to the other 5 people in the theater (including a very old lady, who made me sadder than the movie - it was Mother's Day, why's she watching a zombie movie by herself?).
I know this is mainly a negative review, but I want to stress that the movie is still worth a look. Arnold's performance (and Breslin's, though that's not as revealing as she's consistently great), the terrific score, and the charming father/daughter bonding scenes are enough to make it worth seeing, though you don't need to rush out right now to do so. I really wanted to like it and was quite anxious to see it (I cut my Skype call to my mother-in-law short to go! And I really like her!), but after 30 minutes I realized the movie had already played its entire hand and we were just also kind of waiting for Maggie to turn, which may have been the point but if so it didn't translate to an effective feature (again, an episode of a TV show would be ideal for this exact scenario/number of characters). As long as you go in knowing that it's so stripped down that it's almost weightless, you'll probably find a lot to appreciate and enjoy, especially if you're a die-hard fan of Arnold's that still looks forward to his ass-kicking adventures with the same fervor you did as a kid. I'll give it this much - his crying has come a long way since End of Days' embarrassing snowglobe scene, so for that alone it's a winner.
What say you?