In a world where The Walking Dead is the biggets showon television and breaking all of these records, and every once in awhile yet another zombie film comes out, followed by countless imitations, as well as video games centering on zombies, the zombie genre is a bit oversaturated to say the least. But on the same token, there always seems to be one diamond in the rough that tends to transcend the genre in ways its predecessors didn't. That film is Maggie.
The directorial debut of long time title designer Henry Hobson, Maggie follows Midwestern teenager Maggie, heartbreakingly portrayed by Abigail Breslin, after she becomes infected by an outbreak of a disease that slowly turns the infected into cannibalistic zombies. During her transformation, her loving father, played by the absolutely surprising Arnold Schwarzenegger, stays by her side. The script was a Blacklist script written by John Scott 3 - a brilliant one with many layers, complex characters, and real themes not seen in zombie films.
I caught this film during its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival knowing nothing other than seeing one trailer for it, albeit an interesting one, and that Arnold Schwarzenegger was stepping out of the action blockbuster genre he helped revolutionize by taking a role in a small indie drama. Indie drama. Meaning a genre known to have little to no budget for SFX, tells hard hitting often in your face stories featuring layered and complex characters - all of which Arnold has never, and we thought probably would never, checked off of his acting resume. But he does so in this film and does so rather bravely.
As a 28 year old, I naturally grew up on some of Arnold's most iconic roles: The Terminator in Terminator and T2: Judgment Day, John Matrix in Commando, Dutch in Predator, Jack Slater in Last Action Hero, and even Harry Tasker in True Lies. Hell, I even enjoyed his roles in Kindergarten Cop, Jingle All The Way, and Twins, but he was always THE action hero; MY action hero. The big, badass muscular dude with the accent that I always pretended to be in my room. That's how I grew up knowing Arnold Schwarzenegger and that's how I knew him even as the Governor of California. Once he returned to acting, he stepped right back into the action genre with The Expendables 2 and 3, Sabotage and The Last Stand so, naturally, we all think "Arnold is back!" Basically, what I'm trying to say is that, while he has stepped out into comedic roles, Arnold had never tackled a role with as much dramatic heft as his role in Maggie - I was a little skeptical to say the least. But the trailer and, mostly, Arnold's presence was what piqued my interest in the film, so I bought my ticket once they went on sale.
By the end of the film's extremely efficient, though at times laborious, 95 minute run time, I was left speechless. My buddy, also a big Arnold fan and I just sat in our seats while everyone was filing out of the theater, trying to process what we had seen. Not only was the film quite great, but Arnold Schwarzenegger absolutely knocked it out of the park. For a huge chunk of the film, Abigail Breslin and Arnold Schwarzenegger are on screen by themselves and forced to carry the film as a father struggling with the inevitable fate his daughter will suffer, and a daughter who must fight what have now become her natural instincts to kill, as well as coming to the realization that her life will be cut short before she can even begin living it. Hobson focuses on an obvious yet never touched on theme of what the actual turning into a zombie can do to a person and their psyche. What does a person think? What do they go through? How does their family handle it? What happens when you know you are going to die? Being 19 years old herself, I'm sure Abigail Breslin found a lot to relate to in Maggie and it shows - she is absolutely brilliant and heartbreaking. Breslin keeps her Maggie grounded in reality, never slipping into melodramatic soap opera acting, never allowing her to develop a "woe is me" attitude but still having moments of weakness and immaturity. What makes Breslin such a gifted young actress is how much she can say without saying a word. She uses her big, beautiful eyes as windows into her soul and her thoughts and completely draws you in, making you feel what she's feeling. She shows great poise, command and control for being such a young actress.
In what could only be a fitting turn of events, Arnold Schwarzenegger must now be his daughter’s rock and shoulder to cry on - providing some rather broad shoulders in the process. The thing that has always made Arnold appealing, at least to me, is how he can command the screen and hold the frame without ever saying a word. His movie star charisma has always been physical, and that serves him perfectly in this role as he doesn't have many lines. I'm not sure how much of that was to protect him and his accent from making bits of dialogue sound "funny" and elicit unintentional laughs from the audience, though. And that's always been the problem with Arnold, is being taken serious as an actor with his thick, Austrian accent. He just naturally says words and phrases awkwardly, which is probably why he was able to transition to comedy so effortlessly. Hobson, whether intentional or unintentional, does not allow that to be exposed and instead pulls a very raw, emotional, physical performance out of Arnold that, when he does speak, you are taken back not by his accent, but by what he is saying - forcing you to listen, not hear. As a father who is wrestling with his own selfishness of not wanting to let his daughter go but not wanting to see her suffer, Arnold does a great job in physically bringing these emotions to the surface, often times slouching his shoulders making it look like he's lost a more than a few inches off his massive frame. To see this giant of a man just overcome with emotions plays brilliantly into the role here and Arnold is game. In order for a film this dependent on the believability of the father-daughter relationship, both performers needed to step up to the plate in a big way, which Breslin and Schwarzenegger do in a BIG way. In one particular scene, Schwarzenegger and Breslin share a tender, sweet exchange about his later wife, her mother that was effusive and heartbreaking. The few moments they share together were really touching, which brings me to one of my problems with the film - I wish there were more of them.
While the relationship between Maggie and her father is extremely believable and touching, there should have been a few more tender moments together sprinkled in with the heartbreaking, realization of what is inevitable moments. Schwarzenegger and Breslin were so believable and had such great chemistry that I wish we could've seen just a few more of those moments to make the wallop that is the climax even more impactful than it already is.
The above little tidbit aside, Henry Hobson does a great job in his directorial debut. He told the story with a steady, assured hand and pulled fantastic, riveting performance out of his actors and fleshed out incredible characters with whom you can sympathize/empathize with - something a lot of new directors always seem to forget. There is no movie, no matter how beautiful it may look or how many SFX you throw in, if there is no emotional core at the center of it, which starts with the characters. Hobson already shows a great understanding of that notion in this film, which will certainly be an intriguing calling card in search of his next project. The film also features some stunningly beautiful cinematography from Lukas Ettlin, whose previous work includes Battle Los Angeles and Transformers. Ettling does a great job capturing the mood and tone of the film with bleak, desaturated colors, almost using any kind of light as a sort of enemy - the more light means another day has passed means Maggie is one step closer to the inevitable. However, even at 95 minutes, Maggie feels a tad long in parts. The pacing was slow, which fit the tone set for the film, but it was too slow for its own good. The opening sequence/montage was a little clunky and disjointed and some scenes felt like they went on and lingered a bit too long, throwing off any rhythm that had been established. When dealing with a story this raw and grounded and slow paced, the director must find a way to keep the audience engaged or risk losing them. Hobson never lost me, but I was on the brink of going bobbing for apples in parts, if you catch my drift.
All in all, Maggie was a surprise in many ways and a first in the established career of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the budding career of first time helmer Henry Hobson. A stunning, heartbreaking, fresh take on the zombie genre that explores themes of loss and the complicated relationship not only with a loved one, but with oneself and fighting the urge to naturally be selfish when it comes to a family member at the end of their rope. No one wants to see a family member, let alone a daughter, leave this life but we also don't want to see them suffer. But how can we bring ourselves to let go?
This is Jovanni, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.