FEBRUARY 4, 2016
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)
I wasn't expecting Pride And Prejudice And Zombies to be any good. I can count the number of good PG-13 Screen Gems horror movies on one hand with fingers left over, and I am just not a fan of mash-ups in general - adding things you like into other things you like is fine for ice cream sundaes, but otherwise it's just not appealing to me to see Yoda driving around on the Ecto-1 or whatever other dumb shit people post on the internet. And yet, the script/concept is actually not too bad for the most part - it's not played for laughs (thankfully) and the zombies are surprisingly used sparingly (and more or less utilized as a version of the plague). No, it's actually the flat direction and horrendous editing that does the movie in, leaving it watchable, even fun at times, but rarely as engaging as it could have been.
I debated over whether or not to read up on the original Austen story before seeing the movie, because (brace yourselves) I've never read it, nor have I seen any of the straight adaptations that have sprung up over the years (and given my mash-up opposition it should go without saying I never read Seth Grahame-Smith's novel, either). Ultimately I decided not do any such prep, as I feared knowing the ins and outs of the story would put me in a position of being ahead of its characters but also rolling my eyes at how they kept shoehorning zombies into familiar scenes. Luckily, as it turns out that wasn't even the case anyway - long stretches go by without any undead action, and from what I understand the movie actually reigned in a lot of the book's silliness - ninjas and cannibals apparently played a major part, but there's nothing like that here. There are a few instances where I might have grinned at how they "zombified" one of the Austen book's scenes, like when a character got sick from the rain in the original (and here is injured when her musket backfires as she tries to kill a zombie), but for the most part I think I would have liked the movie less if I knew the source material in any detail (I knew it involved a love triangle and that's about it).
Because really, that stuff was fine, and was certainly more interesting than anything involving zombies. Lily James is as wonderful to watch in fetching period dresses as she is kicking ass, and I've never heard of Sam Riley (Mr. Darcy) before, but his voice alone made me wish I was English, and (I say this meaning no disrespect) it was great to have a regular looking guy as the lead in a Screen Gems horror movie, as they tend to cast the most CW-y looking motherfuckers on the planet for these things (his friend, Mr. Bingley, more than makes up for that "gap", as he looks like he was assembled in a Chace Crawford factory). Their unusual romance was fun to see unfold (as was my realization that Austen's source novel is probably to blame for every "they hate each other then they love each other" narrative in rom-com history), as it was dictated by so many external factors beyond the obligatory "wrong foot" first meeting. Fear not, the "Pride" and "Prejudice" of the title is still very much a factor in the narrative, and despite my initial assumptions, never really got overshadowed by the zombie action.
In fact most of the zombie stuff is front-loaded; we meet Mr. Darcy as he kills one (that POV of a head being twisted off that they used in the trailer), and James and her sisters are introduced only moments before they too get to show off their zombie-killing prowess (their dad, Charles Dance, cares more about their ability to fight than taking on the usual womanly roles of the day - namely getting married and producing heirs). Then they all go to a party and zombies show up there too! It seemed at first like they just took the source story and added "then zombies show up and ruin everything" to every scene, but after the first reel it dips back into a sped up version of Austen's story, with minimal zombie interference until the 3rd act. Most of their appearances in between are fleeting, like when the girls (who look nothing alike, for the record - it's like they went out of their way to find girls who could never conceivably come from the same genes) travel to a neighboring town and come across a downed carriage on the way - its inhabitant is a zombie, they kill her and move on with the romance/social class stuff. This sort of approach does result in one terrific jump moment (even I got legit startled, which almost never happens), but will likely frustrate anyone who showed up hoping for a full blown zombie epic with some period romance stuff thrown in as flavor.
If anything, it's really the other way around, at least until the climax, which leaves Austen behind for a while (unless the Wiki I read skipped over the rescue scene and bridge explosion). At this point it starts feeling more like a period zombie movie, but it's rushed through, and by that point I was far more invested in seeing if Liz would end up with Mr. Darcy anyway. There's some half-baked nonsense about four zombie horsemen that never really pays off (the book has two sequels, so maybe they're hoping there will be a film series - there's certainly a sequel setup in the closing credits), and I like that the zombies talk until they eat brains (at which point they become typical moaning undead), but it doesn't add up to a compelling undead story. Perhaps they felt shoehorned by the original text and trying to stick to it? Whatever the reason, perhaps streamlining some of the original elements (for starters, there are five sisters, but two of them serve no purpose) would have given them more time to flesh out the zombie elements, making them feel a little more organic to the original story that they were aping. I mean, it's a fully developed story to begin with, and the zombies don't seem to be replacing anything in the original narrative (like evil soldiers or something), so adding another story on top of one that they're not doing much to reduce and trying to cram it into 108 minutes doesn't seem like the sanest plan.
And that's what makes it so frustrating, because the movie would actually work really well if director Burr Steers and his editor gave it any life (no zombie puns, damn you). They're smart enough not to overload the movie with action (and in turn, more CGI gore), but nothing ever really excites when it should, and one or both of them seem to actively oppose standard coverage. There are several scenes where it feels like we should be seeing James' reaction to something, only for them to not show her at all (including a major moment with Mr. Darcy near the end), and scenes often come and go with zero finesse or grace. I thought perhaps the movie was way too long and it got hacked up, but there's nothing in the trailer that's missing from the feature, which is the usual sign of such re-editing. But then again, the IMDb trivia talks of a 'long take' sequence that was cut after preview screenings, so obviously there was SOME reworking, which might explain the breathless opening credit sequence, where Dance narrates the history of the zombie plague over an animated scene, all of which feels like a quick way to recap what was probably excised original material featuring the actors. But Steers also can't seem to get a handle on action scenes either; the PG-13 doesn't seem to be a major factor (that startling moment I mention involves a zombie's head being blown apart) and even the one on one fights between humans lack a pulse. It's just all very much on rails, with editing that draws attention to either the movie's hollowed out presentation (there are at least two scenes where a character suddenly appears in a different spot than they were in the previous shot, as if there was a middle to the scene that got hacked out) or the editor/director's incompetence. So you can't help but wonder if the zombie element was even necessary; everyone looks the part and could probably become someone's favorite version of a particular character - but the polarizing "hook" will keep those would-be fans at bay, and then the zombie stuff doesn't really deliver. No one's satisfied!
Wherever the blame should lie, it doesn't change the fact that adding zombies to a Jane Austen story is the least of the movie's problems. It's been in development for ages (Natalie Portman was originally going to star; she gets a producer credit alongside about twenty others) with several directors having come and gone, both inspired (David O. Russell? Lord and Miller?) and "this could have been awesome" (Neil Marshall, David Slade). Instead we get a guy whose last two movies were Zac Efron vehicles (and wrote the classic How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days!), with zero action/horror on his resume, so I have to wonder if Sony just gave up trying to find someone suitable and just grabbed a yes man from a list, knowing that with all the producers involved they needed someone who'd follow directions instead of being all "auteur" about it. So as a result, it's about as good as you'd expect from someone whose last directorial gig was an episode of The New Normal. However, it's better than you'd expect from the one-joke premise, and as Super Bowl counter-programming, I'm not sure there's ever been a more fitting concept than combining horror with a "chick flick". Normally we'd be seeing separate movies offering these things (a standard female-driven movie from one studio, some crappy horror movie from another), so on a fiscal level it's a genius move. Just a shame that it doesn't work as well as it apparently could have. Maybe I'll read the book and see if it improves things. Ninjas are cool, I guess.
What say you?
P.S. Lena Headey's role is so brief that it should have gone unbilled, and true to form, in the one scene she shares with her Game of Thrones dad, Steers can't be bothered to show both of them in the frame at the same time. As for Matt Smith... let's just say my interest in seeing what Doctor Who was about after Lego Dimensions has been greatly reduced. He's only in the movie for like 15 minutes - as a supporting character! - and he drove me insane, so how the hell am I supposed to watch hours of this guy as the hero? And no, it's not because his character shares a name with my son (William Collins), he was annoying me before I even realized that.