DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In the new zombie film "Maggie," Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Wade, a Midwestern farmer trying to keep his infected daughter, played by Abigail Breslin, from being taken away. The film opens in theaters today and also can be seen on demand. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: "Maggie" isn't a great movie, but it's a haunting one. It's like a one-stop shop for a range of cultural anxieties - plague, environmental catastrophe, big government. Two of its elements - Arnold Schwarzenegger, zombies - would generally make you say OK, got it - big-budget gorefest with Conan killing ghouls. But no, it's low-budget. It has little blood, and it's paced like an art film. The title ghoul, played by one-time "Little Miss Sunshine" Abigail Breslin, is Schwarzenegger's daughter. And his goal is to keep the government from killing her. The setup is that there's an incurable plague that turns Americans into mindless cannibals. They're called necroambulists. Small and large towns are in ruins. Farmers are being forced to burn their own crops. And when people are bitten by ghouls, they have roughly eight weeks before they, quote, "turn." As Schwarzenegger's Wade drives his rattletrap pickup along a barren Midwestern road, a radio announcer explains that victims first experience a loss of appetite, followed by a heightened sense of smell. And then, suddenly, a return of appetite, only this time for something, well, different. That's when they need to be quarantined, which we soon learn means they're thrown into warehouses to be torn apart by other ghouls or else painfully euthanized. The movie opens with a phone message from Maggie. She's running away from the home she shares with her dad, her stepmom Caroline, played by Joely Richardson, and her half-brother and sister, but Wade won't let her go. He finds her, brings her back and sends his two younger kids off to stay with their aunt. For long stretches, Maggie sits in darkened rooms, her skin growing paler, her capillaries darker, her blue eyes milkier beside her morose dad.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAGGIE")
ABIGAIL BRESLIN: (As Maggie) You spent two weeks out there looking for me?
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: (As Wade) Yeah. I made a promise to your mother to ever protect you.
BRESLIN: (As Maggie) Yeah, but what about you guys? What if I hurt you?
SCHWARZENEGGER: (As Wade) Don't worry. Caroline and I, we know the precautions.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BRESLIN: (As Maggie) You shouldn't have brought me back.
EDELSTEIN: The most striking thing about "Maggie" is how Schwarzenegger's character becomes ever more halting and helpless. This is an actor with the most flamboyant savior complex in movies, having vanquished robots, predators, demons - even Satan himself. He ran for governor of California to be - he was explicit about it - its savior. That didn't turn out so well, and his return to movies hasn't been successful either. Age and scandal have diminished him. And here, as a man who can't triumph over nature or a government that's presented as the enemy of the family, he uses his loss of stature to generate an enormous amount of pathos. That said, he still can't deliver a line of dialogue without sounding as if he learned it phonetically. And his accent is so strong, you wonder where the name Wade came from. In the last third of "Maggie," the filmmakers hand the narrative reigns to Maggie herself, and the movie is better for it. Breslin is a fine, unshowy actress, and as a girl with what's essentially a terminal illness, she's just as affecting as Shailene Woodley in "The Fault In Our Stars." In one scene, she impulsively cuts off a finger that's begun to rot. And it's not the gore that does a number on you, but the girl's rage at her own body. In an even more powerful scene, she goes on a date with some friends - everyone knows it will be the last time - and sits with an infected teenage boy who's farther along than she is. The film becomes, briefly, a tragic romance. And it's not just these two, but a whole way of life that seems to be rotting before our eyes. It's too bad the film, which is directed by Henry Hobson, moves so slowly and is so underlit you often can't make out what's happening. But for all its flaws, I've had a hard time shaking "Maggie" off. It captures the fear that no matter how much our culture worships superheroes, we can't save the next generation. Here's a telling moment - the cops come for Maggie. Wade won't let them take her, and a cop says I'll be back. And Arnold Schwarzenegger has no reply.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: On the next FRESH AIR, astronomer Chris Impey tells us about our future in space, including the possibility of a space elevator.
CHRIS IMPEY: The idea is basically you string a cable up into space to the point where it's suspended, like in an Indian rope trick, by the spinning force of the Earth.
BIANCULLI: Impey's new book is "Beyond" - hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.