Somehow or other I managed to remain entirely ignorant about the existence of Maggie until I was confronted with it in my local DVD store. The worn and tired face of Arnold Schwarzenegger on the Blu-Ray cover of a zombie film I’d never heard of was more than a little surprising. How had this happened? As a child, when other children were investing in the merchandise surrounding various films about dinosaurs and Disney characters, I was thoroughly obsessed with the oeuvre of this Austrian super star. I’m a lot older now, but I still can’t imagine how this one slipped through the cracks…
Or maybe I can. You see, this is probably the first film in the last 35 years that features Arnold Schwarzenegger but is NOT an ‘Arnie’ movie. Instead, this is a relatively subtle glance at a family dealing with the inevitable approach of death. Abigail Breslin takes the lead as Maggie, a young teenager who has run away from home in a world ravaged by a disease that turns its victims into zombies… slowly. When Maggie’s father (Schwarzenegger) finds her in a hospital, he discovers that she has been bitten, and will soon become one of the undead. He brings his daughter home to live out the remaining weeks of her life.
The film’s narrative, so far as it goes, then centres on these two characters. Maggie attempts to emotionally prepare for death while trying to fit in with friends, reacquaint herself with her ex-boyfriend, deal with the awkward affection of her step-mother, all while her body changes and begins to revolt against her. In short, the film provides an interesting take on horror’s tradition of creating parallels between body-horror and the onset of adolescence. Meanwhile, the Schwarzenegger character must deal with the reality that his daughter is disintegrating, and that killing Maggie may become the only humane option.
Henry Hobson, whose career has largely been focused on developing film title sequences up to this point, is clearly heavily influenced by Terrence Malick. He is far less concerned with narrative than with the emotional weight that hangs over his characters. And like Malick, he attempts to convey this by using gorgeous hand-held cinematography to juxtapose his character’s powerful internal conflicts with the vast and awesome weight of the natural world. These are people whose problems are small in the context of the wider world, but this only makes their struggles lonelier and more effective. But much like in some of Malick’s more recent efforts, Hobson does not know exactly when to call it quits, and there are times when the film seems to stretch beyond the weight of its material. Thankfully, a short running time makes these instances forgivable.
And Arnold Schwarzenegger? Well, it would be easy to over-praise his performance, and some critics probably have. But this is certainly the most layered performance Schwarzenegger has ever delivered. As a father dealing with the most lonely decision in the world, he is entirely convincing from start to finish.
But Hobson finds himself in a difficult spot. The presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his film has garnered Maggie more attention than it would otherwise have received, but it has also placed the film in a precarious position. Critics, expecting a traditional Schwarzenegger movie have been suitably surprised by the weight of his performance, while dismissing the film itself for not meeting the expectations that his presence suggests. Meanwhile, fans are likely to feel thoroughly disappointed if they expect either a Schwarzenegger action film, or a zombie-laden horror movie. But if you can set all preconceptions aside, this is 90 minutes well spent.