There’s a lot that is commendable in Maggie, but only so much of it supported by the bits that crumble and fall apart. It tells a tired story in a tired setting, though when combined, it forms something new. It’s a film with a lot of potential but only realizes half of it.
Maggie has gotten a lot of attention from the video game world for being what trailers portray as a The Last of Us movie, though it is far from being that. The similarities lie in the zombie premise and general relationship structure, but this is more about Wade Vogel (Arnold Schwarzenegger) tending to his terminally infected daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin).
He’s called in a favor to keep her out of quarantine a little longer, determined to spend the last of her life together. While her stepmother (Joely Richardson) contributes greatly to the familial impact of Maggie’s looming fate, the story focuses mostly on what it’s like to slowly and inevitably lose a loved one. The zombies are mostly incidental to this tale.
In fact, there are perhaps only three total undead to see, a refreshing statistic for zombie films. And it only briefly touches on the beaten horse of people being the real monsters—though admittedly, there are some real assholes hanging around—and more tenderly cuts to an interesting allegory of terminal illness. Maggie is going to die and everyone knows it.
The weight of this emotional meat is carried by two deft performances by Schwarzenegger and Breslin. Gruff and vulnerable all at once, Wade is a far cry from anything the former California state governor has done before. It certainly feels at the limits of what the notable action star is capable of but never beyond, calling up an impressive display strength and sensitivity.
Breslin has a much tougher go of it, but she wrestles down her sizable role with aplomb. As Maggie, she has to transition between several phases of illness, and while the remarkable makeup aides the downward spiral, it’s mostly thanks to her nuanced understanding and portrayal of refusal, exhaustion, disheartening joy, bitter acceptance, and everything in between.
It’s especially noteworthy their performances when you consider that director Henry Hobson and writer John Scott 3 imbued the film with a lot of motion and sound-based storytelling over verbal. Whereas a book like The Fault in Our Stars can rely on the words and thoughts of a terminally ill Hazel, Maggie wisely opts for the actions of our characters to tell the story, to relate their feelings and desires, and does so quite well.
The problem there is that while each moment is handled well, the connective tissue between them is lacking. It doesn’t feel so much like we’re going scene to scene but more like it’s just one scene after another. It’s cohesive only so much that the same situation progresses through the whole film, instead imbuing a substantially chunkier sensation to the proceedings. The story demands a smoothness that either the writing or directing or editing just couldn’t deliver.
And while some aspects of the begrudging trip down to the fateful terminus are striking and engaging, much of it feels either empty or tired (or both). For instance, when Maggie is confronted with her old friend and is more or less forced to hang out with other kids, it’s fascinating to watch the casual lying going on. It’s almost lying for the sake of lying, like a platitude, and it makes Maggie’s predicament all the more distressing and compelling.
But everything surrounding it is some combination of trite or underdeveloped. An uninfected boy steps up and really dicks it up with his attitude, but another infected one regards it as a fear after quickly sliding into an upfront and ultimately depressing notion. And then him and Maggie share a moment as two kids marching steadily to a sloppy doom.
It all happens so quickly—almost irresponsibly—that it felt more like a zombie movie compliance move than a desire to explore these ideas. So much of it, in fact, feels that. There seems to be a singular desire to expose this fatal relationship, but there is a lot of cruft on the side that only serves to detour the examination.
A purge of those distractions might enable Hobson to do something besides dwell on the rampant misery of the characters. The few points where we see an unmitigated glee help us to realize this was truly a descent to something dark, not some place Maggie and Wade have been the whole time. While Maggie succeeds at many points, so much of it is weighed down by an inability to circumvent old ideas on the way to new ones.
Final Score: 6 out of 10