Saturday, May 23, 2015


Alternate Title:  Predator vs. Zombies, the Hallmark Edition

One sentence synopsis:     In the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, the eldest daughter of a Texas farmer contracts a virus which slowly turns her into a zombie.

Things Havoc liked:  So... I saw a zombie movie last week starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I know that notion isn't terribly far out. I'm a huge Arnold fan after all and always have been. But a Schwarzenegger Zombie movie does rather seem like something that would write itself as an action extravaganza, played straight or silly depending on the intentions of the filmmakers. But there are always other ways to go about things, and one of the reasons I went to see this movie in the first place was because it promised to make the attempt at something new. Something different. Something like Arnold Schwarzenegger playing, not a zombie-killing badass, nor a MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW (see John Wick or Taken), but a deep dramatic role that requires him to leave the action persona aside in favor of "true acting".

You see this sort of thing on occasion from all sorts of actors, comedians looking to prove themselves in dramatic roles, action stars looking to prove that they're more than just hulking killers, Hollywood pretty boys trying to shed their teenage-heartthrob reputations in favor of being treated seriously as actors. Some people can pull this transition off (Leonardo diCaprio, Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey) and some can't (Robin Williams, Keanu Reeves, Sylvester Stallone), but it really shouldn't be much of a surprise that Arnold, at long last, decided to give this sort of thing a go. After all, when one thinks about action stars who can't really act, Arnold is the apex predator, so iconic in such roles that his accent alone became a standin for the entire genre of action-stars-who-can't-act, and several of his best movies (such as Terminator) took advantage of his legendary acting awkwardness by casting him, believably, as a killer robot. Here he plays Wade Vogel, a farmer somewhere in Texas who lives with his second wife and three children on a farm following a zombie apocalypse. If you have trouble picturing Arnold as such a thing, I don't blame you, as I was constantly waiting for the movie to go full-Commando and have him suddenly break out the weapons from his secret hidden past as a Vietnam scout-sniper or something, but Arnold plays the role sermon straight, and honestly... he's... not that bad. He's not great certainly, but the movie doesn't demand much more than the occasional clipped word and worried look, and while it palpably feels like the film is dancing around the issue of his inability to act, he never embarrasses himself with some kind of tearful, screaming, Tommy Wiseau-esque performance. That's a bigger accomplishment than it sounds, given the track record of a lot of his peers in movies like this. Does anyone remember 1991's Stallone vehicle, Oscar?

Wisely, the film pairs Schwarzenegger with someone with a bit more credibility as an actor, specifically Abigail Breslin, whom I first encountered as a child actor in Little Miss Sunshine and have consistently liked ever since. This isn't Breslin's first time in a zombie flick (Zombieland), nor her first time in the horror genre (Haunter, The Call), and given that the film is more or less about the process of her turning slowly into a zombie, she effectively leads the film. Her reactions to her slowly-worsening condition are believable, both in reaction to horrific events (snapping and ripping a fox apart with her teeth, for instance) and simply in dealing with the inevitability of the fact that she's going to die and be replaced by a mindless killing machine. The movie doesn't dwell more than is necessary on the details of her condition, though sequences in which she cuts herself accidentally only to have black ichor ooze out of her finger are certainly gruesome enough, and Breslin gets more or less the entire runtime to shine, putting on a slew of reactions beyond just blind panic and frightened weeping. She goes out with friends, she says goodbye to people she loves, she even manages to become reasonably numb to some of the manifestations of her worsening condition (nonchalantly asking if there are any eyedrops in the house after her eyes turn black as pitch and film over with zombie-cataracts). Her acting is believable through and through, and thereby she manages to take most of the dramatic weight of the film, leaving Arnold to carry a lesser burden. The two of them work well together, as the film gives them both a chance to breathe and simply exist in their world, something most zombie movies don't do.

But then, Maggie isn't most zombie movies, thanks to the twin decisions by the filmmakers to invert the general concept of zombies by A: establishing the zombie virus as something which turns its victims over the course of weeks, not seconds, and B: setting the film at the tail end of a seemingly successful campaign to combat the zombie plague. All the trappings of zombie apocalypses are here of course, the abandoned cars on empty roads and burnt fields sterilized by a frightened government, but the movie's dynamic is of normalcy of some form re-asserting itself in the aftermath of a disaster. The government is clearly functioning. Civic authorities distribute literature and seminars about dealing with the zombie virus. Citizens complain that the local authorities aren't getting municipal services back up and running fast enough. There's even discussions of whether or not it's time to re-open the schools, as children talk frankly with one another about which ones of their classmates died during the plague and which ones did not. People don't even seem overly afraid, as, absent the mystery of what the zombies are and how they spread, they have more or less become inured to them, taking reasonable precautions by going about armed, and otherwise returning, slowly to what can be salvaged of their lives. Civilization has not fallen, nor the world degenerated into a Mad Max setting. All of this combines to produce a setting that isn't quite like anything I've seen before. Indeed, the best scene in the movie comes when one of Maggie's friends, worried for her but determined to help her anyway she can, convinces her to come to a gathering of their fellow high schoolers, where they all sit around a campfire drinking beer stolen from someone's parents, talking about what is happening the way teenagers always talk about their lives, conscious at all times of the fact that two of their number (Maggie and another boy) are sporting visible marks of zombification, and will consequently be dead in a matter of weeks. Zombism here is a fatal disease, not the cleansing wrath of a vengeful God. It's astonishing that it took this long in a zombie craze that has lasted my entire life for us to get a movie that tried something like this.

Things Havoc disliked: So how is it, then, that none of you have ever heard of this movie, which should by rights have at least been making the rounds of trailers on Youtube or before other films? It's not simply because this isn't a zombie movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in the normal sense of things. It's because, on top of that, this is a Zombie movie starring Arnold Schwarzenneger as made by Terrence Malick.

No, not literally. The movie is actually directed by a man named Henry Hobson, whom I've never heard of before, and who, according to my research, is most famous as a Title Credit Designer (that's a thing) on a number of films, and who used this movie as his directorial debut. But judging from the evidence, Mr. Hobson either desperately wishes to be Terrence Malick or thinks that he already is, as the movie as he has produced it is glacially slow, due mostly to the need for the camera to stop every ten seconds or so for another obligatory shot of the sunlight filtering through wheat, or whatever else is intended to symbolize some damn thing like the fading light of innocence. Characters speak in almost puritanical mumbles, as if afraid that to speak with any more force would be to incur the wrath of the director, their lines punctuated by long, pregnant pauses which simply become endless, until we are left wishing that the characters would get over themselves and die or convert into zombies already. Worse yet, bereft of the tension that would come from actually having zombies about, the movie winds up with no tension at all. The zombies, absent a jump scare or two at the beginning of the film, are effectively never there, and without them, the movie may as well be a Lifetime Channel special-of-the-week about the challenges that beset a family whose daughter is stricken with inoperable cancer or other generic pretty-person's-disease.

And that's really the problem with Maggie. It's a movie that defines itself by what it isn't. It isn't an action extravaganza. It isn't a normal Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. It isn't The Walking Dead or 28 Days Later or World War Z. It isn't a horror film. It isn't a movie about a family besieged by zombies. So much time is spent establishing the fact that the movie isn't a bunch of things, that by the time it gets through the aforementioned sunset-wheat-shots and to the point of the film, there really isn't anything there. And what little there is is entirely manufactured. Why, for instance, would the government ever conceivably let families take their zombie-infected loved-ones home, only to ask that they dutifully bring them back to an extermination center for disposal when the disease gets close to turning them? Isn't this just asking for people to fail to do so, thus releasing further zombies on the population? We only see this happen some four or five times in the movie, and yet the entire concept is treated as some kind of "tension-generator", as the local cops threaten to take Maggie away and her father threatens to... I don't know... go full Terminator and beat them up I guess. Worse yet, we have the local doctor who solemnly informs Wade that the exterminations centers are basically giant pits into which the infected are flung, or where they are given euthanizing drugs to kill them, which paradoxically produce a spectacularly painful and drawn-out death. Doesn't a lingering, agony-filled experience kind of defeat the purpose of euthanasia? And given that we now know this, doesn't that completely disarm the "dilemma" of what Wade is to do with Maggie? His choices are literally to keep her at home and comfortable, or to send her to be tortured to death by strangers. And the movie tries to make of this some kind of difficult, agonizing choice that tears at his soul. If the film were a more traditional Arnold vehicle, wherein he had to battle the cops for the right to not have his daughter die in agony, I could see a contrivance this broad, but this movie is no such thing, and the contrivance itself is regarded as being the sole source of tension. This is like making a movie about the terrible, nerve-shattering decision that a man must make, wherein he can either obtain ten million dollars, or he can shoot himself in the testicles with a rivet gun. What will he decide?!?!?!?!?!

Final thoughts:   Given the weirdness of the premise, Maggie isn't an awful film, but unfortunately it's undone by the fact that the weirdness of the premise is literally the only thing the movie has going for it. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that the concept alone of Arnold in a tearjerker was enough to sell the film, absolving themselves of the need to actually make a decent tearjerker to go along with him. Tearjerkers aren't my cup of tea, generally speaking, but even I know the difference between those that are good and those that aren't, and Maggie, while it is not a bad movie, is certainly not a good one either.

One is tempted in cases like this to ask why this movie was made at all, be it Arnold's ego, or the director's, or both, but the end product we have here is a classic case of someone becoming so attached to the concept of a film that they forgot to actually include the rest of the film. All of this has happened before. All of it will happen again.

Next time, though, perhaps Arnold could include a one liner or two to spice things up? I'd really appreciate it.

Final Score:  5/10

Next Time: Oh what a lovely day it is...

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