Thursday, February 25, 2016

It Came From The Cineplex: Pride And Prejudice And Zombies

Pride And Prejudice And Zombies was written and directed by Burr Steers.

Steers previously wrote Igby Goes Down and How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days. He directed Igby Goes Down, 17 Again and Charlie St. Cloud. Naturally all this experience with teen angst films and rom-coms makes him the perfect choice for a zombie epic.

The movie's based on the book of the same name by Seth Grahame-Smith, which was based on the 1813 novel Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen (got all that?).

In 2009 Seth Grahame-Smith took the novel Pride And Prejudice (which was in the public domain) and cleverly tweaked it by adding zombie elements here and there. He followed it up in 2010 with a similar novel, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Both books became huge best sellers, and spawned a cottage industry of imitators. 

The film had quite a tortuous route to the screen. A movie version of the book was first announced in 2009, to be directed by David O. Russell (Three Kings, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) and starring Natalie Portman. Russell left the project in 2010 over budget conflicts. The next day Portman quit the film, which threw the project into a tailspin. Numerous directors, writers and actors were attached to it over the years, until Burr Steers finally agreed to direct in 2013, and filming began in 2014.

Unfortunately by then the whole mash-up genre was yesterday's news, having cooled off long ago. If this film had come out while the novel was still hot, it might have been a huge hit, but 2016 is way too late to try and rekindle the spark the genre once had. 

As a result the film has been underperforming at the box office, grossing just over $10 million in its first month of release. The fact that Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (which beat Pride And Prejudice And Zombies to the screen by four years) was a flop no doubt had a negative effect on this film as well.

The PG-13 rating didn't do the film any favors either. Who thinks it's a good idea to make a zombie movie with little or no gore? Isn't that why people flock to such films in the first place? To its credit, the movie stretches its restrictive rating to the breaking point, but when the audience can see ten times more zombies and carnage on The Walking Dead at home, there's not much point in venturing to the cineplex to see this film.

Then there's the subject matter. You can trowel on all the zombies you want, but that doesn't change the fact that it's still basically Pride And PrejudiceYour enjoyment of the film will depend greatly on your tolerance for Jane Austen novels, as it contains huge swathes of period dialogue from the source material. Few males in the coveted 18 to 24 demographic are probably fans of Regency-era drawing room dramas.

It looks like the director tried to "action-up" the film as much as he could. There's a battle between the human and zombie armies amidst the burning ruins of London that I don't remember being in the book. There also seems to be a lot more women twirling around with swords. In fact the movie seems to think the image of beautiful young women kicking ass and wielding weapons is cinematic gold, and showcases them every chance it gets (at the expense of actual character development). Unfortunately the whole "bad girl with a sword" trope peaked many years ago with Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Pride And Prejudice And Zombies seems to have trouble making up its mind and establishing a tone. It obviously wants to be a horror/comedy like Shaun Of The Dead and Zombieland, but there aren't enough elements of either. The humor's so sparse and dry that it wasn't until twenty or thirty minutes in that I began to realize the film was supposed to be funny!

SPOILERS FOR A NEARLY TWO HUNDRED YEAR OLD STORY!

The Plot:
If you've read the original story, this'll all be familiar to you. If not, get comfortable, as this is gonna be long and complicated. The movie takes place in an alternate world where 19th England has been overrun with zombies. London has become a walled city, while those in the countryside live in fortified estates. A no-man's land called The In-Between separates the city from the country. A few bridges span the In-Between, allowing access to the city. The wealthy gentry school their children in martial arts and weapon training.

The story concerns Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and their five daughters: Jane, Elizabeth, Kitty, Mary and Lydia. Mr. Bennet insists that all his daughters be skilled against the undead, while Mrs. Bennet is only concerned with marrying them off to wealthy suitors.

The wealthy Bingley family moves to the area and throws a welcome ball. In attendance are the young and handsome Mr. Bingley, and his friend Mr. Darcy. The Bennet sisters attend the ball, and Bingley is immediately smitten with Jane. Darcy sees Elizabeth, but finds her unattractive (?), which sends her fleeing tearfully from the ball. Outside she encounters Mrs. Featherstone, who's become a zombie. Darcy kills Mrs. Featherstone. A horde of other zombies then descend on the ball, and the Bennet sisters spring into action, wiping out all of them. After seeing Elizabeth's sweet zombie killing skills, Darcy changes his mind and becomes attracted to her.

The Bingley's invite Jane for tea, and she leaves on horseback. On the way she has a run-in with a zombie. She fires her gun at it, which backfires and cuts her hand. She stumbles the rest of the way to the Bingley's in a torrential rain. When she finally arrives she's suffering from a bad cold. Darcy sees the cut on her hand and fears she was bitten by a zombie. Elizabeth arrives at the Bingley's to take care of Jane, and prevent Darcy from killing her.

While Jane recovers, Elizabeth meets a dashing soldier named Mr. Wickham. She's attracted to him, but Wickham says he's a former friend of Darcy, and doesn't want to move in on his girl. There's another zombie attack, and once again Elizabeth and Darcy fight them side by side, while Bingham is injured.

Meanwhile Parson Collins (played by Matt Smith) arrives at the Bennet house, intending to marry one of the sisters (which one doesn't seem to matter to him). He decides he wants Jane, but she's promised to Bingley. He then sets his sights on Elizabeth and proposes to her. He insists that after they're married she give up her warrior ways, and she flatly refuses. Collins then settles for Elizabeth's friend Charlotte (damn, there's a lot of names to keep straight in this movie!).

Wickham and Elizabeth begin growing closer, and he takes her to his "secret place"— a church filled with "civilized" zombies. Wickham explains that if a zombie doesn't consume human brains, it'll never become completely mindless and savage. These zombies are exclusively fed pig brains in order to preserve their humanity. Wickham wants Elizabeth to help him bring these civilized zombies to the government's attention, as a possible cure for the undead scourge. He also asks her to marry him, but she's conflicted.

Elizabeth and Wickham then meet with Darcy's aunt, the Lady Catherine de Bourgh (played by Lena Headey). Lady Catherine is a famed, eye patch-wearing zombie killer who has many wealthy and influential friends. Elizabeth asks her to help Wickham's civilized zombies, but she refuses. When Elizabeth returns home, she finds out that Darcy has encouraged the Bingleys to move away. She's convinced he did this to separate Mr. Bingley from her sister Jane. She confronts Darcy, who proposes to her. She rejects his proposal and challenges him to a duel. When she defeats him, he leaves in shame.

Darcy then sends Elizabeth a letter explaining his actions. He says he separated Jane and Bingley because he feared she only wanted him for his money, after hearing a drunken confession from Mrs. Bennet. He also warns her against Wickham, who tried to elope with his fifteen year old sister to obtain her fortune. Darcy says he's currently in London, trying to protect the walled city from being overrun by a vast army of zombies.

Lady Catherine then confronts Elizabeth, because she wants Darcy to marry her daughter Anne. Lady Catherine's bodyguard attacks Elizabeth, but she manages to kill him. Apparently this earns Lady Catherine's respect, and she befriends Elizabeth. Lady Catherine then says that Wickham has abducted Elizabeth's youngest sister Lydia. Elizabeth goes off to rescue her.

Elizabeth rides to London to ask Darcy if he knows where Wickham may be hiding Lydia. While there she helps him battle the zombie horde. She then realizes Wickham has most likely taken Lydia to the civilized zombie church. She and Darcy ride to the church and find Wickham and Lydia there. Elizabeth rescues Lydia and sends her back home on horseback. Darcy battles Wickham and impales him, revealing a big bite mark on his chest. Wickham's been a zombie all along! Wickham pins Darcy and is about to kill him, when Elizabeth swoops in and chops off his arm. He falls to the ground, unconscious.

Meanwhile soldiers have rigged the last remaining bridge across the In-Between with explosives. They're under orders to detonate it to keep the zombie horde from entering the countryside. Darcy and Elizabeth try to outrun the horde and make it across the bridge before it explodes. The bridge is detonated when they're only about halfway across.

Elizabeth crawls from the rubble, finds Darcy unconscious, and declares her love for him. He recovers and tells her he heard what she said in the rubble. They have a joint wedding with Bingley and Jane, which is officiated by Parson Collins.

In the mid-credits scene, a one-armed zombie Wickham, leading a horde of undead, interrupts their wedding.

Thoughts:
• I don't have a lot to say about this film, so this'll be pretty brief.

• I liked all the world building in the film, such as the walled London surrounded by a moat and the country estates protected by studded, grinding fences. They even explained why everyone seemed to be so good at killing zombies— because wealthy parents send their children to the Orient to learn martial arts. It was all ridiculous of course, but it seemed pretty well thought out. 

• For some odd reason it's become a tradition for characters in zombie films to avoid using the "Z" word. Not so here. The characters in Pride And Prejudice And Zombies throw it about quite freely.

• Matt Smith, of Doctor Who fame, stars as Parson Collins, and is his usual excellent self. He absolutely steals the show every second he's on screen. In fact it wasn't until his character appeared that I realized I was watching a comedy. Too bad his part wasn't larger.

• Whenever any of the female characters are seen on horseback, they're riding straight ahead in the saddle. Does that seem right? Wouldn't it be considered proper for pampered ladies of the Recency era to ride sidesaddle

• Mr. Wickham introduces Elizabeth to a church full of "civilized" zombies, who retain their humanity because they've never tasted human brains. If they ever do, they'll immediately become full-on mindless zombies.

I don't think I've ever seen this in a zombie movie before. This particular "rule" is usually reserved for vampire films. It's not really a problem, I just thought I'd mention it.

• During the end battle, Elizabeth chops off the zombified Mr. Wickham's arm. He returns at the end of the film with what looks like piece of ornate wrought iron jammed into his stump.

His prosthetic reminded me a lot of the one used by Azog The Destroyer in The Hobbit films.

• The end of the film sets up a possible sequel, which is odd, since Austen only wrote the one book.

There are a number of literary sequels to Pride And Prejudice, but they were all written long after Jane Austen's death. Between this and the film's dreadful box office results, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for a follow up.

Pride And Prejudice And Zombies has tons of Pride, lots of Prejudice, but not nearly enough Zombies. The fact that it's based on a phenomenon that's come and gone, the anemic rating and the indecisive tone make for a muddled mess of a film. I give it a C.

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