At first glance, you’d be forgiven for quirking an eyebrow (or perhaps even rolling your eyes) at the thought of Arnold Schwarzenegger in a zombie movie. Even as he enters his older years, the iconic former action star is still known for defying his age in films like Escape Plan, Sabotage, and the Expendables trilogy, movies in which the plot tends to take a backseat to the explosions, gun battles, and fist fights. However, Maggie, from director Henry Hobson, is different both in terms of being a zombie movie and in Schwarzenegger’s role. This isn’t a film in which thousands of zombies are taken down using high-powered weaponry. This is a film that deals with concepts such as inevitability, loss, and the struggles that we face when doing the “right thing” means hurting someone we love. In short, it’s neither a typical Schwarzenegger movie nor a typical zombie movie but it is one that works surprisingly well in both regards.
Maggie doesn’t give viewers much exposition to work with but it provides just enough to make sure they know what’s going on. A sickness dubbed the “necroambulist virus” has begun rapidly spreading and those who are bitten by an infected person undergo a process called “The Turn” over a period of six to eight weeks in which they die and then reanimate (to the film’s credit, the term “zombie” is never used). The government has set up a quarantine zone where those who are infected are supposed to be brought but many people choose instead to keep the infection of their loved ones a secret so that they can spend just a few more weeks with them. Such is the case with Wade (Schwarzenegger), a farmer who discovers his daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) has been bitten.
Wade’s friendship with both the local doctor and the local sheriff means he can keep Maggie at home without fear of the government showing up on his doorstep. However, even as he tries to enjoy his last few weeks with Maggie, Wade must confront several harsh reminders that, eventually, he’s going to have to decide how he wants his own daughter to die. These reminders include encounters with the infected in the woods and abandoned buildings surrounding his farm and having to watch as Maggie’s infection becomes worse and worse. The swift, no-fuss way in which Wade deals with the infected he finds makes it clear that Hobson wasn’t interested in directing an action film and the movie’s PG-13 rating means that Maggie’s decay is hard to watch not because it is gross (although at certain times it can be) but because it is genuinely sad to see her struggling to deal with her rapidly-approaching fate.
These hard-to-watch struggles are accentuated by the strong performances both Breslin and Schwarzenegger give as a daughter and father who try their best to make the most of the time they have left with each other. Maggie enjoys comforts such as a swinging on a swing set and reading books, spending time with her friends, and even kissing the (also infected) boy she has a crush on. Wade regales Maggie with stories of her mother (who died when Maggie was young), plays her favorite songs on his cassette player, and takes her to a small garden of Daises (her favorite flower) he planted while she was in the hospital. These brief moments of genuine happiness make the inevitable tragedy all the harder to watch but they also help to remind viewers that even the grim and somber world presented in Maggie isn’t one that has been entirely given up to darkness.
While Maggie gets high marks for its exposition, filming style, and character portrayals, it does falter in a few spots. Some scenes, such as a conversation Wade has with his doctor friend about what “has to be done”, feel forced and the film’s over-reliance on quick-cut scene changes can be confusing if your attention wavers for even a moment. Joely Richardson (Nip/Tuck) does an admirable job as Wade’s second wife (and Maggie’s stepmother) Caroline but her lack of significant screentime makes it obvious that she’s mainly just there to give extra dimension to Schwarzenegger’s Wade character and to act horrified whenever Maggie displays a new symptom of The Turn. Also, to address the elephant in the room, Schwarzenegger’s heavy accent isn’t really that noticeable (though this is mainly because Wade never says more than a handful of words at a time) except for the brief times when he has an extended conversation with Maggie or another character and even then it isn’t that bad.
Saying that Wade is the film’s main character or that Maggie is the main character would be doing both of them a disservice. The interplay between both characters is the real star of Maggie and it is, thankfully, one of the movie’s strongest elements. It is a little disappointing that neither Wade nor Maggie get much in the way of backstory and that the film has such an odd (and ambiguous) ending but neither of those detractors takes away from the powerful performances both Breslin and Schwarzenegger give. Video game enthusiasts will likely compare Maggie to Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us (which wouldn’t be unfair considering Hobson both directed and helped create the game’s opening sequence) but the best way to appreciate the movie is letting it stand on its own and embracing it as a different sort of zombie flick.