Since returning to movies after almost a decade away to govern the state of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger has done some of the most interesting work of his career. The films themselves aren't always great -- after The Last Stand, movies like Escape Plan and Sabotage have been downhill -- but Schwarzenegger himself has been doing good work as an actor in them. I'll take run-of-the-mill #HeavyAction like Eraser or Raw Deal over Escape Plan any day of the week, but I'd be lying if I said Schwarzenegger doesn't give a much better performance in the latter. He's the best thing about the movie.
This trend continues with Maggie, the first feature from director Henry Hobson, whose previous credits consist mostly of opening and ending title design. Schwarzenegger plays Wade Vogel, father of teenage daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin), who as the movie opens has been bitten and infected by a virus that is turning much of America's populations into zombies. Though he's supposed to turn her over to the authorities for quarantine, Wade decides he's going to keep Maggie and watch over her as she undergoes the transformation from his daughter into a monster.
There is such an interesting dilemma at the center of Maggie, but it's not a dilemma that the movie is either interested in or able to confront. The idea of a father insisting on watching over her daughter as she essentially dies slowly in front of him -- knowing that once she's gone she'll more than likely try to kill him and his family -- is a fascinating study of unconditional parental love. John Scott's screenplay adds a compelling wrinkle to the dynamic by adding a second wife for Wade and stepmother for Maggie (played by Joely Richardson), who, despite being her parent, doesn't feel the same innate connection to the girl and whose distance affords her a kind of clarity that Wade doesn't possess. She seems to be the only character who really knows what's going on and is willing to do anything about it.
All of this is implied in the movie, but hardly explored. Though Maggie would appear to the story of Wade's difficult choice, Schwarzenegger's character disappears from the film for long periods of time. We don't see him wrestle with the dilemma internally, but we also barely see him have to defend his decision to external forces (except for a few cops that show up from time to time, but seem pretty amenable to his wishes). If it's not his movie, whose is it? Sometimes it belongs to Maggie, who struggles with the changes her body is undergoing and, in the words of Doctor Octopus, does not want to die a monster. Sometimes it belongs to Joely Richardson, who feels like an outsider to the Wade/Maggie dynamic and must stand by and watch as both make what she fears are tragic mistakes. Sometimes the movie is just about world building, flashing back to the origins of the zombie apocalypse and examining what the landscape looks like under these new conditions. Any one of them would have made a decent movie on its own, but by trying to service each of these points of view Maggie doesn't give enough time to any single one.
To its credit, Maggie is a zombie film that feels like few others -- relatively high praise when one considers just how ubiquitous the genre has become these days. Director Hobson approaches the zombie movie as moody, somber drama. This is a quiet, grey, sad film, with minimal dialogue and no big show stopping moments. Its PG-13 rating is a good indicator that it's not interested in the kind of gut-munching violence celebrated by so many modern zombie movies, but rather in the moral dilemma of how one treats the loss of a beloved family member to the zombie plague. It is an approach that works better in theory than in execution; one watches the movie and appreciates that it comes at the zombie film from a new angle, but that angle isn't particularly effective. It's easier to admire than it is to enjoy.
And then there's Schwarzenegger, cast totally against type as Maggie's father. There's nothing about the character of Wade that cries out to be played by someone of Schwarzenegger's stature, making me wonder if there was anything that drew him to the role beyond the opportunity to play a totally different kind of part. In the past, when Schwarzenegger has played against type it has been in comedies that very much comment on his status as the ultimate action star -- something like Kindergarten Cop, which pits him against a bunch of tiny children, or Junior, which "feminizes" the ultimate symbol of masculinity in cinema. Maggie finds him very quiet and somber, giving one of his best performances not because he shows a range of emotion but because he has by now become comfortable and confident enough as an actor to underplay his emotions instead of pulling faces and yelling "Aaaaargh!" Schwarzenegger was once a performer best known for going BIG and hamming it up, but Maggie finds him internalizing everything. If it's a mostly one-note performance, that's because it's a mostly one-note movie.
There's just enough good about Maggie to make me wish it was better. The photography is good and the tone Hobson strikes is a nice one; I just wish he knew exactly what to do with it, as tone alone does not a movie make. Schwarzenegger's casting is clever, as he's an actor known for being able to do anything on screen but here is rendered powerless to combat what is happening to his daughter -- no amount of strength or superhuman ability can stop the change. Perhaps the biggest frustration with Maggie is it removes agency from most of its characters. The film sets up a lot of difficult choices and then takes them away by giving everyone an easy out. The central dilemma of the Schwarzenegger character is made meaningless.
Ultimately, Maggie is a near-miss. It's different enough for a zombie movie and different enough for a Schwarzenegger movie, but not different enough in a way so as to be a success as a movie. It's clear that Hobson has chops as a director and everyone's heart is in the right place, but the whole thing comes up just a little short. It's a movie I can still recommend for the things it does right, but only with a whole bunch of disclaimers. I like to see filmmakers taking chances with familiar genres and I like to see Arnold Schwarzenegger taking chances as an actor. I just hope that next time out those chances pay off a little better.