There are few things more frustrating for me — as a film critic but also just as a film fan — than a film that is admirable but not very engaging. Maggie is one of those films: I kept glimpsing greatness only to see it slip away again and again. Director Henry Hobson and screenwriter John Scott 3*, both of them making their feature debuts, either don’t recognize the potential of their central conceit, or else they’re too afraid to confront it head-on, and content themselves with dancing around it. This is extra frustrating for me as a science fiction fan who craves the sort of thoughtful SF we find in the literature but that is almost entirely absent from the screen, stories that challenge human conscience and morality in new ways that we haven’t tackled before. But science fiction drama — which is what Maggie is — still needs to be rigorously science fictional; it doesn’t work as SF drama is it isn’t. And Maggie isn’t.
Sometimes the slipperiness takes the form of Maggie appearing to contradict itself. This is the story of Wade Vogel (Arnold Schwarzenegger: The Expendables 3, Sabotage), a Midwestern farmer who, in the midst of a zombie outbreak, goes in search of his teenaged daughter, Maggie (Abigail Breslin: Ender’s Game, The Call). For reasons unknown and unexplored and frankly inexplicable, she had run away from home as the “necroambulist virus” was spreading — no one says the Z word here — and Wade finds her in a hospital: she has been bitten, and there is no cure. But the progress of the virus is much slower than we’re used to in zombie movies; Maggie has weeks to live still, and relatively normally for most of that time. A doctor allows Wade to take Maggie home as a special favor, but Wade must bring her back at the end, so that she can be quarantined with other infectees and eventually euthanized. The first thing I thought was: Is this a good idea? Isn’t there an enormous likelihood that Wade, perfectly understandably, will be too emotionally compromised to turn his daughter over for killing, even if she is no longer truly his daughter? Isn’t there a danger of spreading a friggin’ zombie infection, and isn’t that a catastrophic public health risk?
But even though the film really is about Wade’s conflict over Maggie’s inevitable Turning and his drawn-out grief as he deals with this situation, we soon learn that this sort of thing is happening all over the place, as a matter of course: infectees are going home until they are too far gone, with family members expected to bring them in to be put down when the time comes. And yes, many people are failing to comply. So right away, the basic conflict the film had set up — What will Wade do? — is answered almost retroactively. It becomes a foregone conclusion, it would appear. And the way the film resolves that fails to satisfy because it demands that we spend more time with Maggie herself than we do. At some point, Maggie needed to delve more into Maggie’s grief over and acceptance of her certain death than it does. But the film spends more time on moments of body horror, though there aren’t even many of those, than it does on the psychological horror of someone who has barely lived facing her mortality. Schwarzenegger is pretty good at the grieving-dad stuff, but there are other dreads here that go almost unexplored, to the film’s detriment.
Maggie is supposed to be a realistic depiction — not just emotionally but medically and governmentally — of how we would cope with a zombie outbreak, but it only just skirts authenticity on all those levels. This is the shadow of a compelling movie. But only a shadow.
*John Scott 3 sounds like a character out of a science fiction drama about clones. Maybe he could write that one next.