Tuesday, February 9, 2016

'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' Is Actually Pretty Good

I know, I know, we've all been burned before. After such mediocre blah-fests as Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter and Hansel and Gretel, Witchhunters, a genre mashup like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies doesn't exactly get the heart racing. It more seems like a tired retread of ideas that didn't work any of the times before. You'd be totally forgiven for assuming that this movie is entertaining garbage at best and humdrum boredom at worst. You would, however, be wrong.

The thing to remember in this case is that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies isn't just yet another version of the "something classic + something schlocky = weird new story" formula. It's the great granddaddy to them all. Or at least to this current generation. Based on the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith (and Jane Austen), the film is based on a book that came out in 2009 and really kickstarted this fad. 

As the originator, then, it's worth noting that this story does the mashup better than most others. The Jane Austen story about love and the struggles of propriety is thrown into stark relief by the surprisingly complex zombie narrative with which it shares the book. Both are well done and interesting plots, and the sum total is actually greater than its parts. In other words, both the book and the movie are really good.

I'm not saying that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is about to win any awards here - especially since most critics are reacting to it like reframing Austen is akin to puppy-murder - but it's a fun, ambitious movie that tells a really good story. And, to be honest, that's really what I'm looking for in a movie.

The basic plot of the film is this: in the past hundred years, England has gone from being the strong nation a the heart of an empire to a shambles, destroyed by a ravaging zombie outbreak. The zombies were contained for a time with the building of "the great divide" - a massive trench surrounding London and "the inbetween" - and the intentional fortification of the landed gentry inside their homes. Most of the poor have been turned into zombies, if only because they lack the means to barricade themselves away, and England itself stands on a precipice. There are very few people left, and those who remain have trained themselves in the deadly arts and zombie hunting.

This is where our heroines come in. See, while the world is going through a horrific zombie outbreak that could spell the end of the world as they know it, polite society carries on. Mrs. Bennet (Sally Phillips) still desires that each of her five daughters make a good match with a wealthy husband, even if her daughters spend a lot more time sparring and killing zombies than they do practicing their needlework.

The romance continues on about as you'd expect it to, just with more zombies. Jane (Bella Heathcote) and Liz (Lily James) are spotted at a party after Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) and Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) come to Hartfordshire. Mr. Bingley is immediately smitten with Jane, but Mr. Darcy says some not very nice things about Liz, causing her to run off in anger. 

Here is where the story goes off script a bit, though, with zombies suddenly attacking the ball and Liz and her sisters getting together to fight them all off. It's a satisfying moment when Colonel Darcy, famed veteran of the zombie wars, realizes that his skills aren't needed here and the women have taken care of the mess before he can get his jaw off the floor.

The whole film wraps together the harsh realities of this new world with the classic tale. Darcy and Liz spar, figuratively and literally. Jane's ride through the rain where she gets a cold and has to stay with Mr. Bingley is complicated because they think she might have been bitten and infected. Wickham (Jack Huston) is a regimental not in a battle against the colonies or France, but against zombies. Mr. Collins (Matt Smith) patroness is still Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey), but now she's a famous zombie hunter. And so on. 

You already know the story of the romance, and it continues without much alteration, but what makes the story here really work is how that romance feeds into a larger plot about the zombies. While everyone is getting mixed signals and misinterpreting situations, Liz stumbles across a number of very concerning events, all of which signal that the zombie war is about to end. For good.

First she spots a group of four men with top hats in a cemetery - a fact that is innocuous until she sees a painting of those same four men as the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Then there's the church of St. Lazarus, a place Wickham brings her, where she finds still-rational zombies curbing their urges with pigs' brains and prayer. Then there's her teamup with Wickham to convince Lady Catherine to help them reason with the "zombie aristocrats" - those zombies who have kept their rationality and could hypothetically curb the appetites of the other undead.

Naturally Lady Catherine doesn't go for this, and it leads into Darcy and Liz's famous showdown, followed by his explanation of why he hates Wickham. In this version, however, the focus isn't so much on how Wickham was horrible to Georgiana (who never actually appears in the film), but rather on how he intentionally infected Darcy's father with the zombie plague, forcing Darcy to kill his own father. Gross.

The final act where Wickham runs off with Lydia is made all the more terrifying as we understand that he's not done it for money or to shame the Bennet family name or even for sex: he's using Lydia as bait to force Darcy out into the inbetween and a horde of zombies. This is also right before the last bridge connecting the inbetween and the rest of England is blown up - if Darcy doesn't make it back in time, he'll be lost forever. Oh no!

Only, and this is why I actually really liked this film, Darcy isn't the one who figures all of this out. Liz does. She and Jane go riding off to save Lydia, along the way reuniting Jane and Bingley, and when Darcy goes off on his own to save Lydia, Liz follows right after and saves his life. It's the rare movie with a badass leading lady that isn't afraid to make her more badass than the male hero on occasion. 

I'm not going to spoil the ending - there is a rather large twist in there, though it's not unforeseeable - but suffice to say that this is the rare mashup that genuinely works on every level. Liz's independence and firey spirit is only enhanced by the addition of weapons and combat training, and Mr. Bennet's (Charles Dance) refusal to talk about marrying off his daughters makes even more sense in a world where we might not get another year, let alone have to worry about inheritance laws. 

The best part is how Pride and Prejudice and Zombies throws the ridiculousness of British regency-era social codification into high relief. 

It's impossible not to laugh a little at Caroline Bingley's (Emma Greenwell) snobbery, considering that the world is literally coming to an end! The idea that people are still carrying on talking about how much money someone makes per year and who's parents own what when there are zombies eating their way through whist parties is so incredibly human. I think that's what I love about it. Screw all those apocalypses where people band together with no regard for racial or social distinction, this feels all the more depressing and real. No one can even let go of their pride long enough to save the world.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is by no means the best movie you'll see this year, but it is still a movie worth seeing. It's fun, for starters, and in a way that doesn't apologize for its content. It's not a movie that's trying to make you feel bad for liking it. I mean, zombies, heroics, and a little bit of kissing? I am happy to admit that these are all things I can appreciate in a film. It's a nice combo. 

It's a not a movie based on ironic like for something, which is impressive considering that I'm pretty sure that's how the novel happened in the first place. But this story is inherently earnest. It's schlocky, yeah, but it's having fun with itself and clearly trying to make a really compelling story. For the most part it succeeds, too, which is all the more to its credit.

Basically what I'm trying to say is that if you're feeling burnt out on the whole mashup genre, that's completely understandable, but consider giving this movie a try anyways. It's an ensemble of fantastically kickass women, it passes the Bechdel Test handily in like the first five minutes, and you're faced with the uncomfortable realization that one of the characters you know and love very well might die before the end of the story - it's just that kind of movie.

It probably won't win any awards and I doubt this movie will make enough money for the studio to decide it needs a sequel, but for my dollar it was well worth seeing. A lady-centric story that never compromises its femininity for its lethality and a lot of great one-liners. You should probably check it out.