A middle-American father watches helplessly as his teenage daughter slowly transforms into a zombie over a period of weeks. Both father and daughter must come to terms with the inevitability of death.
May 8, 2015
Writer: John Scott III
Composer: David Wingo
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson
Distributor: Lionsgate Films/Roadside Attractions
Genre: Drama/Horror/Zombie Apocalypse
Maggie stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin, who you may remember as Little Rock in Zombieland, Olive in Little Miss Sunshine, or Mel Gibson’s youngest in Signs. This film premiered in May 2015 to mixed reviews.
The film opens with Wade Vogel (Schwarzenegger) driving the deserted highways of middle America beneath an overcast sky. Pockets of fire waver in the distance, billowing up smoke as an indiscriminate voice on the radio gives the audience the run-down on what is going on with the zombie apocalypse. Interestingly, no one seems to be openly panicking about zombies. Fast forward to a quarantined wing of a hospital in Kansas City. Vogel finds his daughter Maggie (Breslin) in a hospital gown with a wound on her arm. They embrace. Time to go home.
As Wade and Maggie leave, the doctor warns them that Maggie will have to return to quarantine soon. She’s been infected. The clock is ticking.
Despite Schwarzenegger’s titanic presence (and some potentially misleading advertising in the Amazon Prime streaming description), Breslin is the star of this film.
Maggie is the story of a teenage girl coping with imminent death from a terrifying zombie virus. Over the course of the narrative, Maggie endures the “five stages of death”—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—as she settles in for her last few weeks at home, spends final moments with friends, and makes peace with her mortality.
This experience, which has unfortunate corollaries to real life, is tweaked because the disease isn’t cancer or meningitis, it’s a zombie infection. Maggie isn’t just dying; she’s growing progressively more dangerous to those around her. As the film presses on, her eyes begin losing their color, her skin pales, and black, spidery veins spread across her face and limbs. It is a grotesque and unsettling transformation.
This is a bit novel when it comes to the zombie genre. Usually, zombie films feature a fast-acting virus that requires bystanders to immediately kill the infected on pain of themselves being infected. The sluggishness of the virus in Maggie means that society hasn’t completely crumbled in spite of burning crops, dilapidated roads, and abandoned convenience stores.
Physical signs of the infection begin before “the hunger” sets in, and so the infected are allowed to walk freely for a time. This is what establishes the drama of Maggie: she’s dying slowly, her disease is dangerous to those around her, but not so dangerous that it mandates immediate quarantine, and most importantly, there is no cure.
Wade Vogel is the father unwilling to accept his daughter’s impending death because he vowed to his dead wife he’d protect her. He continuously brushes off the concerns of doctors, the police, and his new wife (played by Joely Richardson) with whom he has two children. Vogel grasps on to some vain notion of being able to protect Maggie in face of overwhelming evidence that she is going to die and there is nothing he can do about it.
Violence: The dark tone and themes of death and hopelessness paired with violence and frightening imagery are the most significant content. The violence is surprisingly scarce in a movie featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it’s still there. More frightening, especially for the squeamish or the young, is watching the zombie virus slowly overtake Maggie as the film progresses. Her physical appearance deteriorates along with her mental state, and the makeup work is good, meaning, disturbing.
Language/Crude Humor: Language is fairly clean. I think there are a few four-letter words dropped on occasion, but nothing comparable to the language in a more recent Schwarzenegger flick like Sabotage, his work in the 80s, or this recent video where he invites fans to come “blow @#$% up” with him. PS: Yes, please.
Sexual Content: None.
Drug/Alcohol Use: No drug use. Someone might have consumed a drink at some point.
The camera work is a little wobby at times (imagine the most aggravating parts of the Bourne movies) and the depressive, indie-style got old after about thirty minutes because it dragged things out. Thankfully, once Maggie gets home, the director (mostly) relented with the shaky cam and the artistic close-ups of household items meant to remind the audience of what normalcy once looked like.
The score is not bad, but also not particularly moving. It gets creepy when the scenes are creepy, and it’s folksy when things are going all right. I don’t think much more can be said than, “It does what it needs to do.”
The writing is a little clunky at points. One prime example is in the opening sequence, when the aforementioned radio announcer mentions farmers’ “desperate attempts” to quell further infection by burning their crops. This sort of language feels a bit forced, like the writers want the audience to feel desperate and therefore they use the word. But desperation and social upheaval are already apparent from the context. Plus, we can see the fields burning during the sequence. In novel writing, we might call this a violation of the “show, don’t tell” principle.
Similarly disheartening occurrences of narrative pedantry occur throughout Maggie, and this is one of its biggest drawbacks. The overarching idea of the story is great. It’s the execution—the nuts and bolts of the story—that feels shoddy. There is something off about the pacing—especially early-on—and the quietude of Arnold’s Wade Vogel. There is tremendous commitment to creating atmosphere in this film, but the scenes don’t link together as tightly as they needed to for this movie to really shine.
Italian novelist Italo Calvino wrote, “The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.” Maggie is a prime example of this. Subtracting the apocalyptic setting, this film is actually about a young girl struck down by a horrific disease in the prime of her life. This is a deeply human scenario with unfortunate real-life corollaries.
The characters experience an unwillingness to accept death, anger at the injustice of the circumstances, and feelings of hopelessness. The circumstances are complicated in that the disease that slowly eats away at Maggie over the course of the narrative will also cause her to attack and potentially infect family, friends, or neighbors. So there is a sense in which Wade Vogel’s and Maggie’s grieving processes are stifled.
And much of the film—particularly the latter half—features Maggie’s own struggle with and eventual acceptance of the truth of her condition. It’s bad enough that she won’t live to finish high school. But she won’t be slipping away quietly in a hospital bed somewhere. Wade won’t let law enforcement take her to quarantine because the stories are awful, and if somebody doesn’t put a bullet in her, she will hurt someone she loves.
What I realized about two thirds of the way through the film is (and it hurts me to say this) is Arnold was not the right actor for the role. Many critics praised the somberness and impotence of his Wade Vogel—a true rarity for an actor who once tossed a knife into a Central American guerilla fighter and then told him to “stick around.” And while I will agree that Arnold actually did a good job of playing someone other than a gun-toting macho action hero, there are more considerations with casting him than whether or not he can act a dramatic role.
Arnold has built an image in over thirty years in Hollywood. The fact is, he is transcendent. He is his own trope. When you put him in your movie, all that baggage of “Hasta la vista, baby” and “Ice to meet you!” comes with him. It’s comparatively predictable to find Liam Neeson threatening Eastern European sex traffickers via telephone with his “particular set of skills.” Arnold is one of my favorite actors, but he is too big for this movie.
When I see Wade Vogel paralyzed and impotent, I should see an actor who cuts that image. I should not think of this:
Maggie features a novel exploration of some common zombie-apocalypse themes. Arnold does a good job as Wade, but his titanic image as an action star overshadows his rare dramatic performance. Abigail Breslin eloquently portrays a teenage girl struggling against her own mortality and the sickness within.
For these and a few other reasons, I really wish I could have loved this movie. But the shoddy pacing, especially in the first forty minutes, caused my interest to waver, and I felt a little deceived by the Amazon description (“A father will stop at nothing to protect his daughter” sounds like a recipe for a one-man army story, no?). Despite an interesting premise and two fine actors in the lead roles, there was just something missing with this film. Maggie could have been so much better. It is with great regret that I conclude: it’s “just okay.”
+ An interesting take on a saturated genre.
+ Music, directing, acting, and cinematography coalesce nicely to enhance the drama.
+ Cool to see Arnold in a different kind of role.
- Way too slow in the beginning.
- Plot needed to be tightened.
- A little cliched at points.
- I'm a die-hard Arnold fan, but I'm not sure he was the actor to play Wade Vogel.