It is not co-executive producer John Scott 3’s original idea in his first screenplay which is at fault. Not the billed “post-apocalyptic thriller,” and a visual copycat of movies that touch Midwest-looking (Louisiana-shot) climate-or-other-disaster landscapes and of many zombie flicks, Maggie has a slant that is novel enough, and yet universal, to have made for much better cinema.
A browned palette in lantern or gasoline-generator light, leaden skies perpetually rumbling like indigestion, and an odd costume choice in the title sweet-sixteen’s (Abigail Breslin) old-fashioned long dress and high-button shoes, detract rather than add. All the more noticeable amidst many scene shifts and clipped dialogue among characters with furrowed, therefore theoretically thoughtful faces, such visual tics may be intended as gloom-edging-into-doom atmospheric reinforcement.
For this variation on a theme of the living dead, Henry Hobson’s feature directorial début does not bring any life living or dead to the whole. Claustrophobia, yes, but no depth at all, for these are not real people to care a pin about, though they are all of them innocent. When farmer Wade Vogel’s (co-producer Arnold Schwarzenegger) second wife Caroline (Joely Richardson) simply cannot stomach any more and, the husband refusing to hand in daughter Maggie by his deceased first wife, leaves with their two youngsters, the viewer does not feel any anguish or anything. Hands clasped over another’s and sympathetic glances have not brought the characters to life in the first place.
The same goes for when rural neighbor Trent’s (Bryce Romero) father does the opposite in pointedly giving the terrified teen up to armed S.W.A.T. and sheriff’s men and thus to the known but unacknowledged quarantine fate of mistreatment and death such as the boy has just described around a campfire. It makes no difference to the unmoved viewer. Nor does community neighbor Bonnie’s (Rachel Whitman Groves) different tack, hiding her husband and daughter until, deformed and transformed and hungry, they are menaces to be killed before they can kill.
No cause is known for the viral necroambulism, so authorities have no reason behind their order to burn the crops that smolder and smoke the ninety-five minutes. Neither airborne nor transmitted by touch or proximity but via the bite of someone already infected, ergo in bodily fluids, it has no palliative or cure. In its full-blown final stage, victims must be carted off to isolation and, in incalculable pain, disposed of. Maybe, or not, there is an intended whiff of metaphor for plagues of the times like AIDS or Ebola, but there is more here of overrated George A. Romero. Suppurating maggoty black patches break out on the skin, eyes glaze, veins blacken and grow prominent while feet turn soft and sloshy, and appetite disappears only to resurface in acute sensitivity to smell and uncontrollable craving for meat, preferably human though fox will do in a pinch.
Local good cop and bad cop Ray and Holt (Douglas M. Griffin, J.D. Evermore) roam to search out and detain the zombies. But Wade confers with M.D. friend Vern Kaplan (Jodie Moore) about the progress of the epidemic in individuals and retrieves Maggie from the hospital infection isolation ward. At their Grant Wood/Andrew Wyeth/Alfred Hitchcock farmhouse, Caroline uneasily accepts for a while, and father Wade tinkers with his prized junky pickup and reminisces to Maggie about her late loved mother, to whom “I promised that I’ll protect you.”
Symptoms worsen, but he resists those who would take her from him forever as, reinforced by the weather and Lukas Ettlin cinematography, their world narrows. Will his love save her from the inevitable, will hers save him, or will abnormal pathology prove stronger than heartstrings?
Maggie is not to be judged as horror film or environmental caution, for it does not go there first and foremost. Front and center is family, or ties of blood in the face of crisis. The story is valid, the treatment is not.
(Released by Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate; rated “PG-13” for thematic material including boody images, and some language.)