'Maggie': Film Review

A sensitively made, surprisingly straight drama that could use a touch of excitement  

Arnold Schwarzenegger gets serious in a family drama about zombies.

A terminal-illness family drama in which the ailment happens to be zombieism, Henry Hobson's Maggie does the genre mashup thing without an ounce of tongue-in-cheek attitude. The choice of Arnold Schwarzenegger to lead such a wholly serious, even solemn film is an odd one — while the action star acquits himself respectably as a father tending to his dying daughter (let us thank Walter Von Huene, listed in the credits as his drama coach), his presence sends signals that this will be a fan boy–only affair. While many in that die-hard crowd will appreciate the film's realist approach, others will have trouble with its dour tone and lack of action. Those grown-ups who have only cautiously accepted zombie fiction and would be more open to Maggie's key themes will likely stay far away.

The world is a few months into an epidemic of "necroambulist virus," and while things are far from normal, infection rates are dropping and most institutions — NPR, for instance — remain in operation. Wade Vogel's daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) has been bitten by a zombie and will certainly become one within six to eight weeks, but Wade refuses to let that happen in a government quarantine zone. He calls in favors with a physician friend (Jodie Moore) and is allowed to bring her home, after being carefully instructed on the signs to watch for that her transformation is imminent.

Read more Inside Schwarzenegger's First Indie, 'Maggie': A Restrained, Stoic, Gentle Arnold

Maggie's stepmother Caroline (Joely Richardson) and two siblings are waiting back at the farm, doing a brave job of acting normal. Caroline tries to get Maggie to eat and to stop picking her scabs, while watching fearfully as the girl's body changes day by day — eyes clouding, spider-veins darkening, her sense of smell becoming more acutely tuned for live flesh. The outside world keeps reminding the family of what's to come: Wade has to kill neighbors who have turned; local cops drive out, threatening to forcibly quarantine Maggie. The family doctor tells Wade that quarantine is one of only three ugly options. The second is a painful drug treatment that cures nothing. Option three: "Make it quick."

While we wait to see if Wade is going to have to take the Old Yeller approach, a couple of precious scenes offer a break from the farmhouse's oppressive mood. Maggie sees some high school pals, including an ex-boyfriend who is infected himself. The weight of the unthinkable is heavy between them, but somehow still enlivens the severe film.

Hobson, a credit-sequence designer making his feature debut, has worked for the Academy Awards for six years; the animated intros he designed for this year's telecast were far and away the most enjoyable element of the show. While Hobson's smarts are evident here, the picture's uniformly dim visuals and sometimes overplayed sound design are static enough to do a disservice to his work with the cast. In his effort to ensure we take the characters' suffering seriously, he seems loath to offer us any kind of sensory pleasure. That's not what we might expect from the designer who brought our senses to life during an otherwise monotonous Oscar ceremony, any more than a serious dramatic turn is what we expect from the Governator.

Production companies: Gold Star Films, Matt Baer Films, Sly Predator
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson
Director: Henry Hobson

Screenwriter: John Scott 3
Producers: Colin Bates, Joey Tufaro, Matthew Baer, Bill Johnson, Ara Keshishian, Trevor Kaufman, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pierr-Ange Le Pogam
Executive producers: Ed Cathell III, Jim Seibel, Claudia Bluemhuber, Florian Dargel, John Scott 3, Todd Trosclair, Ronnie R.E. Hebert, Barry Brooker, Stan Wertlieb
Director of photography: Lukas Ettlin
Production designer: Gabor Norman
Costume designer: Claire Breaux
Editor: Jane Rizzo
Music: David Wingo
Casting director: Ryan Glorioso

Rated PG-13, 94 minutes