Positioning itself as the self-serious alternative to the bloodthirsty zombie horror on shows like The Walking Dead or in movies like Zombieland, Maggie is an inert examination on the futility of hope when faced with a zombie outbreak. Playing out like the parody of a Terrence Malick-directed zombie movie, Henry Hobson’s directorial debut confuses restraint for complexity, and is lifeless in all the wrong ways. The fact that the film held its premiere during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival – after briefly being scheduled to debut during TIFF 2014 – feels like a clever trick to disguise this messy new movie for something that’s actually artful.
Opening with a panicked voicemail from Abigail Breslin’s Maggie, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Wade drives his truck through the vast, grey Midwest while fields burn and alarms blare around him. After two weeks of searching for her, Wade arrives at “shelter for the infected” to pick up his daughter and bring her home. As misfortune may have it, Maggie’s been bitten by one of the undead. The disease is incurable, so Wade takes his daughter home and watches over her, looking for warning signs as he waits for “the turn.”
The prospect of death hangs over Maggie from the onset, from its dilapidated surroundings to the general mood of the film’s characters. When Maggie returns home she’s treated similar to a late-80s AIDS patient, with a mixture of sympathy and concern. The certainty of her fate runs analogous to a diagnosis with a fatal disease, but Maggie has no insight into dealing with that sad potential scenario. It strikes a contemplative, somber tone and then has its characters silently staring off-screen, too ineffectual to portray anything of interest.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is shoehorned into the role of devoted Midwestern dad Wade, straining to bring emotional weight to his lines. In the brief moments where Maggie flirts with action/horror, Schwarzenegger feels right at home, delivering monosyllabic, authoritative commands. Outside of those moments, he’s an empty vessel around which the movie can build desolation. Schwarzenegger lacks the nuance needed to layer in depth to Wade. The single man-tear he sheds mid-way through Maggie is done through a close-up, cut-in shot, and without it we may have never been able to tell if he cared at all.
Not much better is Abigail Breslin’s performance as Maggie. From the moment she opens the movie, her voice is completely devoid of urgency. She’s all brooding without further shades to her character. Every line from Breslin is delivered with such a disaffected distance that it undercuts the seriousness of her situation. Even her angsty, teenage romance subplot seems inauthentic as represented here.
None of the performances are aided by Maggie’s script (apparently written by someone named John Scott 3), which contains no honest moment throughout the 95-minute runtime. In most scenarios, the sparsely distributed dialog would indicate thoughtfulness, but in Maggie it filters down the remaining spoken lines to exposition and pained, nostalgic reflections from characters who otherwise seem unable to reveal their grief. While Maggie does leave some of the details about its version of the zombie apocalypse vaguely compelling, there is a ton of world building done through ham-fisted dialog that feels unnatural, and mostly unnecessary.
Thankfully, cinematographer Lukas Ettlin (Battle: Los Angeles, The Lincoln Lawyer) continues his tradition of making terrible movies seem slightly more competent. His handheld shots hang just behind someone’s shoulders, filling the remainder of the frame with lush nature or grey clouds. Much of this is done in a very muted color scheme that helps provide that gloomy tone to Maggie. The relative gorgeousness of certain shots is negated by Jane Rizzo’s editing, which bounces between shots haphazardly and never allows for a pause to sit in the dramatic moments with the characters.
The gangrene-esque design of the zombies works fairly well here, but it’s neither distinctive nor present enough to be considered a selling point of the film. Outside of a few smart production design choices, Maggie is hit or miss technically. The gas station window plastered with flyers for the missing manages to quickly, and effective provide the Maggie universe with detail; however, the ominous wailing of strings and synths in the score distract from any actual tension that’s part of the film. Each stylistic decision that adds to Maggie’s atmosphere tends to be offset by some other misguided choice.
Maggie is fraudulent filmmaking, the type of movie that dares to be different but doesn’t bother to be much of anything else. It tries to serve as a metaphor for a much more universal experience than a zombie outbreak, yet the experience of the characters doesn’t feel lived in. It begins with an intriguing premise and then wallows in its own misery until the anti-climactic ending. Simply wrestling with profound ideas isn’t enough if it’s not supported by some thought, and Maggie finds nowhere to go once it’s established the setting.
Maggie is a one-dimensional portrayal of a father coming to terms with his daughter's zombie diagnosis, with ineffectual characters and more tears than emotion.