If nothing else, Maggie deserves credit for approaching zombies from a whole new angle. While the angst of watching a loved one get infected is a common trope of the genre, it is rarely if ever the main focus of a zombie movie. But as Maggie shows, it’s a premise with great potential. Unfortunately, Maggie also shows there are many ways to sell that potential short.
Abigail Breslin leads the cast as the titular teenager, who comes down with a case of “necroambulism.” (This is yet another zombie movie in which no one ever utters the Z-word.) Arnold Schwarzenegger is her loving, grieving father Wade. Along with Joely Richardson, who plays Maggie’s stepmother Caroline, the family bands together on their farm to wait out Maggie’s last days.
The most headline-grabby aspect of Maggie is Schwarzenegger’s casting. It’s a rare indie role for the actor — by his own estimation, it’s the lowest-budget movie in his entire career. The character himself is similarly stripped down. Aside from a couple of brief scuffles, there’s no real action here. Nor is there much talking; Wade is the strong, silent type. But that just gives Schwarzenegger a chance to demonstrate a quieter, more grounded sort of charisma.
But he’d probably be even better if the movie gave him more to work with. Aside from the novel premise, everything about Maggie feels dispiritingly generic. Wade is actually the most clearly drawn character in the story, and all we really learn about him is that he’s a strong, silent type who doesn’t enjoy reading. We know that last part because he says so in a conversation with his daughter, who presumably already knew this.
Despite Breslin’s best efforts, Maggie herself never moves beyond the sick, sad kid we meet in the opening scenes. Is she flirty? Nerdy? Sardonic? Sweet? After 95 drawn-out minutes with her, I still couldn’t tell you. Director Henry Hobson and writer John Scott 3 assume that Maggie and Wade’s dire predicament automatically makes them interesting, when in fact it should be the other way around.
It’s not just the characters, either. Shots of Maggie staring out the passenger window of Wade’s pickup truck could have come from any indie coming-of-age drama. A scene of a mostly-zombified Maggie creeping down the stairs feels lifted from every horror movie ever. The costume and set designs reveal nothing about the characters beyond what we already know: they live on a farm and are not especially rich.
When the characters open their mouths to talk, it’s even worse. You can practically hear the filmmakers crossing off a to-do list. Lay down zombie rules via NPR news report, check. Establish father-daughter bond through dinnertime banter, check. Explain central dilemma using minor supporting character, check. Et cetera. Meanwhile, certain plot elements are inexplicably obscured. It’s never completely clear, for example, why Maggie has run away from home at the beginning of the movie.
Maggie isn’t all bad. It’s occasionally moving, because it’s hard not to feel bummed out when you’re watching a dad watch his daughter die. It’s sometimes pretty, if only because it’s not all that difficult to make a campfire or a patch of daisies or a pretty girl look pretty. And hey, there’s that brilliant concept and unique (for Arnold) performance.
But that makes it all the more frustrating that Maggie isn’t really good, either. Maggie could have been a rare treat: a genre movie that eschews big explosions and bloody showdowns to get to the intimate, human tragedy underneath. Instead, what we get is a genuinely new take that winds up feeling, somehow, like the same old stuff we’ve seen a million times before.