There is a provocative idea worth chewing on tucked inside the melodramatic zombie-horror of “Maggie” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin.
In this particular post-apocalyptic vision, a plague is making oh-so-slow work of the world population. Once infected, it takes forever for someone to undergo the painful metamorphosis of turning into a flesh-eating monster. Or at least a few weeks.
Long enough to examine how the infected and the uninfected — friends, family, lovers and other strangers — handle the time they have left. And to make it personal, the film questions what a brokenhearted and devoted father like Wade Vogel (Schwarzenegger) will do in that defining moment when his much-loved teenager, Maggie (Breslin), turns — from merely getting sicker to becoming lethal.
Conundrums worth contemplating that somehow never come to life in “Maggie.”
More interesting is the fashionably executed look. No surprise to learn that director Henry Hobson, a well-known graphic designer and title-treatment maestro, is making his feature film debut.
Stylishly somber, “Maggie” has just enough grit and decay to make the most of its muted colors. It is even artful the way the blood runs closer to black than red. Swiss-born Lukas Ettlin (“The Lincoln Lawyer”) is director of photography, Gabor Norman production designer, Claire Breaux on costumes and Karri Farris head of makeup.
The screenplay by John Scott 3, who also happens to be a NASA engineer, not a combo we see a lot of in Hollywood, made the 2011 Blacklist, that closely watched ranking of the best unproduced scripts floating around town. The plot is lean, the dialogue is spare and there are some intriguing stabs at intellectual and emotional terrain. But the pacing is deadly, so slow there might be time for a catnap or two without missing anything important.
The film sets up a world of isolated individuals with a few long shots of Wade, a farmer, behind the wheel of his truck, the fields on either side in various stages of life and death. No sign of life otherwise.
At the same time, Maggie is roaming the deserted streets of a nearby city. Spotted and captured by the police, she ends up quarantined with the other infected, until a doctor who knows her dad arranges for Wade to take her home for whatever time remains.
Back at the farm, her stepmother Caroline (Joely Richardson) sends the two youngest children to live in an uninfected house. Caroline soon follows. Maggie gets worse. Wade gets more protective and more tortured. But the unbearable tension that should emerge from an intrinsic fear — of the beasts we do not know, the beasts we might become — never takes hold.
One of the most affecting moments comes when Maggie reconnects with some of her high school classmates. They are a mix of sick and healthy; apparently, there is no danger in mingling. Smoking, drinking, toking and small talk about big issues define the scene. Here the film comes the closest to getting at the difficulty of being a teenager and different, as well as the reality that love among the ruins is still possible.
The relationship between father and daughter is not as nuanced.
Still, it is nice to see Schwarzenegger taking risks as he comes back into the film scene. There is the much-anticipated return of his robotic alter ego in “Terminator Genisys” in July; an Ivan Reitman buddy comedy that teams him with Eddie Murphy and Danny DeVito is in the works. And a possible Conan is in his future. But that is ground he has covered in the past.
“Maggie” requires a kind of vulnerability and empathy that those other roles rarely make much room for. Watching this great giant of a man grappling with powerlessness suggests a deeper emotional pool the actor could dive into in the future.
Breslin, at 19, already knows how to navigate the depths. The actress, who earned an Oscar nomination at 10 for her portrayal of a kid beauty pageant hopeful in “Little Miss Sunshine,” moves through all the phases of facing a death sentence with the kind of distracted insolence you would expect of a teenager.
Though “Maggie’s” not much, Breslin is. Not just anyone can make the Terminator cry.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for disturbing thematic material, including bloody images, and some language
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: In select theaters