Monday, April 25, 2016

"Maggie" (2015)

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin and Joely Richardson
Written by John Scott 3
Directed by Henry Hobson
Rated PG-13 — Frightening images
Running Time: 95 Minutes

Society teeters on the edge of recovery from a major outbreak of a zombie virus, and strict quarantine and curfew rules are in place. Wade Vogel (Arnold Schwarzenegger) travels from his farm to the city to pick up his daughter, who has been infected. The virus takes several weeks to fully transform the infected, so Wade is allowed to take Maggie (Abigail Breslin) home for her final days, thanks to a favor from a doctor friend.

But as Maggie gets sicker, and the day approaches when Maggie is required to report back to quarantine for termination, Wade struggles with the decision. Will he hand over his daughter to be killed by the government, or will he hold on to her as long as some part is still human, no matter the consequences?

"Maggie" is a film that is more interesting for what it attempts rather than what it accomplishes, and these are two things: Firstly, it takes all the zombie apocalypse tropes we've gotten used to and twists them into a drama about terminal illness, and, secondly, it forces Arnold Schwarzenegger to act.

This film is unlike anything Schwarzenegger has done before. Sure, he's played fathers and family men before, but usually in comedies and action films. Here, he must play a father coming to grips with the fact that his daughter is essentially wasting away before his very eyes. And he'll be forced to make a decision about what to do with her when the time comes, a moral quandary that no father should face.

Of course, there are limits to Schwarzenegger's range. He's never been a particularly powerful actor in the emotional sense; he's always gotten by on his physical presence and capable but not amazing comedic sense. He bites off a bit more than he can chew here, but the screenplay and director Henry Hobson are smart enough to keep everything pretty restrained so that Schwarzenegger can make this all work. That Schwarzenegger plays such a quiet, unassuming man at all is probably a shrewd bit of casting on the filmmakers' part, as much as it is an attempt by Schwarzenegger to try something new in his advancing years. There are only so many times you can go back to being the Terminator, y'know?

So even though this is not what some would say is a great performance, it's still a pretty great performance for Arnold Schwarzenegger, and that in itself is fascinating to me.

Sometimes what's more important than a great individual performance is chemistry with the other actor, and in this regard, Schwarzenegger and Breslin work well enough. There's a good sense of Schwarzenegger as a caring, overprotective father and Breslin as a daughter who regrets having to put her family through all of this. But there are too many scenes that are basically just one character or the other alone dealing with their sadness, and perhaps this is done on purpose because it makes the scenes where they're together into highlights, but it also robs the film overall of some of the heft it ought to have.

The other thing, treating the zombie infection like this was a cancer drama, is also pretty interesting, but also has its own obvious limitations. For one thing, turning into a zombie really is nothing like getting cancer, and so the logic of some of the things that happen here is wonky. When someone is on the verge of turning into a creature hungry for human flesh, it doesn't make all that much sense that she's allowed to, say, go out for a bonfire night in the woods with her friends. So while this sort of thing is perfectly acceptable for someone whose cancer is advancing, it's not for someone who's turning into a zombie.

So while the attempt is admirable, the outcome only works intermittently. There are a lot of great scenes here, but not all of them work and they don't build to a greater whole. It treats both the zombie horror film aspects and the drama aspects equally, but those things don't demand to be treated equally because they can't be. And the film strains under that weight, even while it remains pretty watchable overall.

The film's dour photography and monotonous score don't help, either. Even in broad daylight, colors are muted save for a few sunrise and sunset shots. Meanwhile, the music by David Wingo sounds the same in almost every scene. In their search for a ponderous tone, I think the filmmakers felt everything about the movie had to be dour and desaturated, but instead it's the moments where there are splashes of color and light when "Maggie" interesting to look at. The rest of it is unrelentingly gray, even when it doesn't need to be.

So "Maggie" has lofty goals, which I appreciate, but it only partially hits its target. It's an interesting experiment, one that I hope someone follows up on — not in the sense that this is a film crying out for a sequel, but that this approach to the material is one that is worth further exploration. And props to Schwarzenegger for taking the risk on this one, too.