Saturday, 5 March 2016

Pride And Prejudice And Zombies (2016) - Movie Review

For as much as I try and deconstruct the films that I watch, with varying degrees of success, I am quickly discovering something about myself when it comes to films: I love dumb zombie movies. Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse, Cooties, Wyrmwood: Road Of The Dead; sure, these are all meant to be comedies, but even then these are incredibly silly films and more than a little wrong-headed in their own ways. And yet, as I look back on them, I still love them a hell of a lot more than I probably should, given the pseudo-intellectual air that can be felt around these parts. Hell, I’m still laughing at a bit from Cooties where a character just says “Word”. So, knowing my own weakness for the more goofy iterations of the living dead, I look at today’s film with a general idea of what I’m getting myself into. I mean, look at the bloody title; my love for all things surreal and ultimately silly can’t help but be triggered by something that gloriously inane. But, I have to maintain some level of professionalism around… here… yeah, I can’t even pretend that that’s what I do in the first place. Let’s just say that my opinion on this film may already be skewed before we even get into it proper. Anyway, time to sink our teeth into this thing.

The plot: In the early 19th century, a zombie outbreak has occurred resulting in, among many other things, England to be separated from the rest of the world by a massive wall and moat. But, even with this in mind, regular life must continue as Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James), along with her sisters, are being pressured to marry wealthy. While no-one catches her eye, she does come into conflict with Col. Darcy (Sam Riley), an elite zombie hunter.

This is definitely the kind of cast that would be needed to carry off this… interesting mash-up. James, who managed to keep from being entirely passive when playing the queen of passive female protagonists in Cinderella, really delivers in the lead role, nailing wit and battle readiness with equal sharpness. Riley gives his prideful twat of a male lead the faux-dignity that he deserves, and yet he doesn’t actively come across as all that hateful… for the most part (we’ll get to that). Jack Huston as romantic foil Mr. Wickham takes the sub-rom-com traits of his character and runs with them all the way through, resulting in a surprisingly effective and occasionally sympathetic villain. Lena Heady as Lady Catherine may be rather underutilised, which is a shame because when she is given a chance to shine, she makes for easily some of the more intense action beats of the film. While the rest of the cast fulfil their honestly rather basic roles well enough, and I question who let Douglas Booth anywhere near the undead again after what happened with Demons, the definite high point is Matt Smith as Mr. Collins. He is a fop of the foppiest variety, resulting in the kind of camp that would cause lesser actors’ heads to explode under the strain; this is helped by the fact that he seems to be having all the fun in the role, making him probably the only person who is.

The initial concept of combining one of the most famous works of classic English literature and one of the most pervasive forms of horror fiction, upon reflection, makes too much sense. I mean, Mr. Darcy is the bad boy dressed in black who, despite every reason not to, ends up being the source of affection for not only the female lead but for many of the readers as well; seriously, how many brooding slayers of the undead could that descriptor apply to? Not only that, Elizabeth Bennet is most likely the progenitor for what is considered today to be a ‘strong independent woman’; ignoring the implications that such a label brings with it, characters like Xena and Buffy most likely spawned from that same primordial soup. So, yeah, beyond just the easy juxtaposition of stuffy British customs and outlandish head crushing to save one’s own brains, this idea has some definite merit to it. After the ultimate letdown of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, adapted by a book from the same author funnily enough, it’s good to know that this idea already is on stronger legs than that one.

Of course, legs don’t matter if the story is unable to run with them; how is this concept executed? Honestly, it’s a mixed bag. The story itself, while featuring some decent ways of showing how one side of the mash-up affects the entire by its co-existence, ends up being more fixated on the original story than it should be. When comparing storylines, the Regency era zombie invasion of a castle fortified London is a lot more interesting than the quibbles about who needs to get married. Were it that this went in some sort of Warm Bodies, involving romance between living and undead, then maybe these two could have meshed together enough to make the softer stuff easier to digest. But even with this in mind, this film gets remarkably clever when it comes to how to present the infected that roam the land. We get a couple of zombie POV shots, including what I think is the first zombie POV death scene; at any rate, it’s a well-realised sequence. The fight scenes, while feeling a tad restrained in places, are especially nice on screen; any excuse for swordfights in films nowadays is totally fine by me. But, more so than their visceral accomplishments, the fight scenes make for some rather interesting conversations, including a key confrontation between Elizabeth and Darcy, as we see both verbal and physical offensives at once. These might be some of the most cathartic fight scenes I’ve seen since I started this blog, no joke.

What a shame, then, that this film presents so many possibilities for something a bit more substantial and just keeps discarding all of them. One of the more intriguing elements of the warping of this story’s history is that the class divide in England is made wider by the adoption of different methods of defence against the rotting hordes: The higher-ups went for Japanese samurai styles while the low(er) class were trained in Chinese Shaolin style. This anime-esque concept, while put to good use in some scenes, is largely kept on the shelf without diving into what could possibly be some kind of Regency arms race; if you are already going for Jane Austen meets insane awesome, how could you pass up chances to go even more bonkered?

There’s also the depiction of what could be another class of more intelligent zombies, which could’ve made for some interesting dramatic notions, but not only does it end being largely forgotten by the end, their mere presence in the story make character actions a lot more unforgivable. Seriously, even without taking in account how much of a cad he is, Darcy’s actions make him out to be even more of a villain than the actual villain. Hell, his actions being morally grey could also be looked into, but much like everything else here, it wasn’t because of how much of the zombie-less plot supposedly had to be retained. I would argue that that is more of an issue with the original book, but that’s why this is an adaptation and not a translation: Changes can, and indeed should, be made. It could probably have made a better case for why, when England and possibly the rest of the world has been ravaged by zombies, the traditional British ideal of wealth is even possible. How does one have a market when brains seem to be the only thing that gets traded anymore?

All in all, while there’s a definite feeling that this story isn’t making full use of the possibilities presented to it, this is still a reasonably fun, if fairly insubstantial, watch. The acting is solid, the fight scenes (when we actually get them) are well choreographed and staged and, even with the missed opportunities, there are some decent ideas still brought forward in the writing. It’s at least worth a rental if you’re so inclined.

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