Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to the big screen following his eight-year stint as the Governor of California was met with a triumphant cheer from fans of the ridiculous, over-the-top action movies that the Austrian actor helped popularize. Cranking out testosterone-laced like The Expendables 2, Escape Plan and Sabotage, it seemed like Arnold hadn’t missed a step during his big-screen hiatus.
But amid all the gunfire and explosions and catchphrases, Schwarzenegger also managed to find time for some genuine acting. Set against the backdrop of a small Midwestern town in the aftermath of a deadly pandemic that produces zombie-like symptoms, Maggie opens with quiet family man Wade (Schwarzenegger) driving into the city to pick up his daughter (Abigail Breslin), who has just been diagnosed with the virus.
Unlike The Walking Dead, whose characters would resolve this problem with a well-placed shot from a crossbow or pistol, the world of Maggie is much more humane. There are numerous protocols in place for keeping the virus contained, including setting aside a quarantine zone where the infected are sent to live among each other until their condition deteriorates to the point where they must be euthanized.
Still in the early stages of infection, Maggie is allowed to return home with Wade, with the admonishment that she be taken to the quarantine zone once her symptoms become worse. Maggie’s stepmother (Joely Richardson) sends her own children to stay with relatives as a precautionary measure, and the ramshackle farmhouse becomes a cradle of tension and sorrow as the family bides their time waiting for the inevitable.
If you strip out the zombie-related elements, this could just as easily have been any number of films about a teenager with a terminal illness – the only real difference here is that Maggie’s affliction leaves her prone to grey skin, wounds that won’t heal and a desire to consume raw flesh. Downplaying the horror in favor of focusing on the familial drama is a superb choice, and lends the film a distinct voice in the cacophony of an already crowded genre.
Maggie is easily the most emotional and melodramatic work of Schwarzenegger’s career, a somber and melancholy affair that showcases a range we’ve never seen from the aging action superstar. His onscreen relationship with Breslin feels authentic and believable, and it’s hard not to sympathize with a loving father who knows his child is slipping away.
In his directorial debut, Henry Hobson knows just when to pull at the audience’s heartstrings. There’s very little in the way of conventional horror, which might disappoint some genre fans hoping for a few scares, but this shouldn’t be seen as a shortcoming. Maggie is an interesting and unique approach to a subject that is often glossed over in other zombie-related stories, and the quieter moments are the ones that resonate the most.