Movie review: 'Maggie'

Somber Schwarzenegger deals with his zombie daughter.

Updated 5/8/2015

Lots of  subpar movies seem as though they were made in a hurry or turned out under excessive pressure. That’s hardly the case with “Maggie,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin as a Midwestern father and child facing “the Necroambulist virus,” a zombielike plague.

It’s far too strange a film to be considered mediocre. It’s a hodgepodge of young-adult, living-dead and illness-of-the-week movies, yet it feels sincerely stitched together. While it occupies very peculiar cinematic territory, never becoming a consistent whole, it resembles a carefully assembled blend of ideas, events and characters chosen to transform reanimated corpses into brooding emotional drama.

A weird sense of unease arrives immediately. A mysterious blight has ravaged most of North America’s agriculture, with farmers burning field crops “Interstellar”-style to hold the die-off at bay. The movie is rather vague about what brought it on, because there’s an even worse pandemic at hand. People infected with Necroambulist disease within six weeks transform into something from a George A. Romero movie.

Flesh rots. Language fails. Appetites extend to carnivorous extremes. And teenage runaway Maggie (Breslin), the daughter of blue-collar rancher Wade (Schwarzenegger), has begun to turn dreadfully ill. Picking up his gangrene-scabbed girl from the hospital treating her, he is warned that her time is short.

How do you cope when something terrible strikes someone you love? Depression, for a start. Frowning and sighing continually, Schwarzenegger doesn’t look or behave like an action hero here. In the 1980s, he seemed deeply out of his element playing a construction worker in “Total Recall.” Now he’s reached an age where he can pass as a man living in an underlit, dingy farmhouse, where director Henry Hobson sets much of the story.

From the sets to the staging, there’s not much spectacle in this nihilistic tale. Wade’s protective efforts are focused on making the declining Maggie feel as good as possible and resisting police efforts to pull her into plague confinement. His physical fights with the undead, whom he knows as neighbors, total 10 seconds out of the film’s 90 minutes.

His on-screen presence might add up to a minimalist half-hour. Breslin carries most of the story as distant, withdrawn Maggie goes through farewell encounters with her high school friends.

Their nighttime group party at the old swimming hole introduces a mild, warm affection between Maggie and a similarly infected boy. The sequence seems like a recognizable scene borrowed from a different genre rather than a natural fit here.

The focus of John Scott’s script is the downbeat ambience of a sick-kid weeper, not the grisly violence that zombie tales typically deliver. It stumbles in its efforts to offer a consistent, regretful tone, by including the occasional line that feels like seriously delivered absurdism. When Maggie amputates a digit following an accident, she shrugs, “What good’s a finger if your arm is falling off?”

Breslin was much better pushing the living-dead theme directly to comedy in “Zombieland,” in which she starred as a kid traveling across the U.S. to get to the world’s last amusement park. That was wicked fun. This fatalist little indie is an A-for-effort movie with C-minus entertainment value.

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