About 15 minutes into Maggie, Arnold Schwarzenegger walks into a gas station market left untended by a zombie apocalypse that’s ravaged the country. A zombie catches him by surprise; he gets the upper hand and kills the zombie. “Hell yeah!,” says Johnny Pay-Per-View. “Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!” Well settle in, Johnny Pay-Per-View, because Maggie is neither a typical monster movie nor a typical Schwarzenegger vehicle, but something totally unexpected: a sober genre riff that uses the elasticity of the zombie metaphor to address the pain of losing a daughter and of making necessary end-of-life decisions. Were the emphasis less on Schwarzenegger and his daughter, played by Abigail Breslin, than on her feelings for another infected teen, it could be mistaken for a supernatural YA adaptation, though its emotions are significantly more muted. Too muted, in fact: Past the novelty of its conceit and casting, and the animating intelligence of its first-time director, Henry Hobson, Maggie is a bit of a drag.
Breslin plays Maggie, a rural teenager who’s run away to the city after being infected by a zombie-like virus that has wiped out much of humanity. She’s resigned herself to her eventual fate, when the disease spreads to such an extent that she’ll start craving flesh and have to be “quarantined” (read: killed) by the government. Maggie doesn’t want to infect her family, but her father Wade (Schwarzenegger) will not let her die alone, so he finds her and brings her back to the homestead, which makes her stepmother (Joely Richardson) nervous, given the risk of infection. The question that hovers over Maggie is whether Wade can recognize when the time is right to let his daughter go and summon the will to do what’s necessary. For her part, Maggie struggles with ever-worsening changes to her body as she approaches the day when she “turns” and her humanity will be lost.
Every decision made by Hobson and his screenwriter, John Scott 3 (also a first-timer), is purposeful and smart: They open in media res, and don’t cover the scope of the zombie outbreak any more than necessary, in order to focus on Wade and Maggie’s relationship. There are horror scenes in the film, but they’re often inseparable from dramatic ones; the subtle creature effects, too, are simultaneously creepy and devastating, because Maggie becomes more of a threat at the same time she loses control over who she is. Schwarzenegger gives a solemn performance unlike anything he’s done in the past, but still well within his range, and Breslin is even better as a girl who’s withering away, but considerably stronger than her massive father.
The trouble with Maggie is that it so relentlessly plays its song in the key of death. Hobson and Scott offer little in the ways of levity or excitement, and the performers, especially Schwarzenegger, are mournful to the point where it seems unnatural. That’s not to say Maggie aspires to be—or should aspire to be—an entertainment of the kind audiences are used to seeing from Schwarzenegger, but the never-changing tone gets oppressive at times. Yet the film delivers when it matters, culminating in a series of scenes that reveal the bond between father and daughter and the things loved ones, alive or near-undead, do for each other in the face of terminal illness. It also shows how far afield zombie films are capable of going—and Schwarzenegger, too.