Written by: Burr Steers (screenplay), Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith (novel)
Directed by: Burr Steers
Starring: Lily James, Bella Heathcote, and Charles Dance
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"To succeed in polite society, a young woman must be many things: kind, well-read, and accomplished. But to survive in the world as we know it, you'll need... other qualities."
If youíve been to a Regal theater during the past few months, youíve likely been greeted with a pre-show bumper featuring various movie-goers milling about in a lobby. One scene features a group of guys spit-balling about their favorite type of movies, and their conversation includes a meandering bit about something being set ďin spaceÖwith zombies!Ē By now, Iíve pretty much tuned this out (Regal does not have its weekly customers in mind when it comes to these annoying things), but I couldnít help but chuckle tonight when it preceded Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a concept that seemed to be similarly spit-balled into existence with Seth Grahame-Smithís 2009 novel.
If I didnít even know the backstory behind this mash-up (in short: Grahame-Smithís editor called him up with that title after scouring public domain titles and infecting them with pop culture tropes), this slapdash origin story would be more than evident in this long-gestating film adaptation. Rarely does this filmówhich has been in the works for over five years nowóever approach anything resembling a point to this particular mash-up: this is simply remix culture cobbling together two overdone genres because it can, not unlike how the world is full of cross-pollinated franchise shirts. Just as those shirts can barely explain why they feature The Simpsons re-imagined as The Sopranos, this movie hardly accounts for shoving Jane Austen and George Romero into the same corner and having them fuck for no good reason.
Not that there needs be a particular reason for that if the end result is at least somehow risible beyond the pitch. However, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is exactly what the title entails: the basic arc of Austenís novel of manners remains, as the film similarly observes the lives of the British landed gentryóonly it occurs in an alternate timeline where the Isles were ravaged by an undead plague during the 18th century. As such, the familiar beats involving the Bennet daughters various courtships are periodically interrupted by zombie attacks, which throws a wrench into the already testy relationship between Elizabeth (Lily James) and Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), whose only commonality is their shared predilection for slaying the undead.
Iím starting to think that maybe Grahame-Smith and I wonít share the same wavelength. Like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, this mash-up doesnít even feel like a reasonable elevator pitch, at least not when itís in this sort of condition. Donít get me wrong: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies isnít a disaster. Rather, itís somehow forgettable despite its outlandish (if arbitrary) premise. You chuckle at the audacity of this title, but you quickly realize thatís pretty much all it has to offer. Calling it a one-note joke implies some kind of humor when thereís not a whole lot of it, at least as it relates to the mash-up itself.
Obviously, Iím not one to advocate for some hyper-ironic, bullshit take on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but a little verve or campy flirtations wouldnít hurt. Whatever wit it has mostly arises out of Austenís own upended gender politics, which are treated reverently here; in fact, the source text is taken so seriously that long stretches pass where you could mistake this as a straightforward adaptation of her novelóand, thanks to the cast, not a terribly ineffective one, to be honest. James makes for a fine Elizabeth Bennet, an especially plucky, feisty young woman with no intentions of submitting to a man, while Bella Heathcote is the more flighty (but still badass) Jane (unfortunately, the other three Bennett sisters are practically glorified background extras). Riley smolders adequately as the prickly Darcy, who doubles here as a preeminent zombie hunter under the tutelage of Lady Catherine (Lena Headey), here reimagined as a woman warrior with an eyepatch.
This cast (which also boasts Charles Dance and Matt Smith) proves to be capable enough to shoulder these familiar roles and beats, rendering them watchable enough, even if all of Austenís material begins to feel like a placeholder between the zombie sequences. Remarkably, these intrusions donít do much to enliven the proceedings; director Burr Steers stages the occasional flourish (such as a decapitation from a zombieís POV) and spills a remarkable amount of gore considering the PG-13 rating (undead exploding heads are no longer off the table, it would seem), yet itís all just empty calories. When one of Americaís most popular television shows airs more gruesome carnage on a weekly basis, itís safe to say that the juxtaposition between this and the British Regency isnít exactly enough to shock on its own (especially since the contrast doesnít communicate much beyond its own glibness).
Have zombies become so familiar that they can almost feel like a minor inconvenience? Thatís pretty much how theyíre treated here: as distractions or ghastly embellishments grafted onto Austenís drama, which never coheres since itís constantly bumping into a shoehorned undead horde that has to be accounted for. If the arbitrary nature of this collision isnít clear enough from the outset, itís crystal clear by the end, when the film doesnít run out of steam so much as it throws its hands up and hopes youíll kindly forget about the zombies.
I am not shitting you when I say I was mentally strapping myself in for a big finale (the story slowly moves towards a giant, apocalyptic confrontation, complete with an Antichrist) that never really arrives. Instead, itís almost as if the script remembers that Austen novels usually end in marriage, so it dutifully obliges and leaves the zombie stuff on the cinematic backburner that is a mid-credits sequence. This is honestly one of the laziest, most anticlimactic major Hollywood movies in recent memory. I almost want to applaud it for realizing that none of this is really working out and having the decency to see itself out of the door.
But in doing so, it wastes Grahame-Smithís scantly intriguing contributions, like an underused kung-fu angle. In the wake of the undead rising, wealthy Brits have the option of sending their children to the Far East to study martial arts in either Japan or China. Having chosen the latter, the Bennet daughters are experts in a Shaolin style that isnít deployed nearly enough (though I must submit that this is the only version of Pride & Prejudice where Elizabeth and Darcyís antagonism results in full-blown fisticuffs). The film is at its best during the few sequences the Bennet sisters work in concert to dispatch zombies; since you canít exactly subvert Austenís already subversive material, it may have been worthwhile to simply amplify it by fully embracing the empowered femininity briefly on display here.
Instead, Steers settles for trudging through all of the motions, only, yes, thereís zombies now. This truly is just Pride and Prejudice augmented with the undead, right down to the aesthetics, which lean more on Austenís pastoral sensibilities rather than the gothic. At the risk of being that guy whoís constantly rewriting and redirecting a movie in his own head, I canít help but wonder why this property wasnít reimagined as vintage Hammer film. Most of the elements are in place, right down to the barely restrained cleavage threatening to burst through corsets and bodices. All thatís missing is a thoroughly macabre sensibility, as his is instead another sleek but drab exercise in action-horror hackwork, a blending that rarely results in anything worthwhile.
Somewhere along the way, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies faintly gasps at justifying itself by feigning some interest in class warfare. Both the martial arts stuff and the zombies themselves look to be in-roads here that donít go anywhere, with the latter only serving to echo Romeroís musings from the decade-old Land of the Dead (and thatís being generous). Iím almost fascinated by how Steers aggressively drops anything that feels remotely fresh or even vaguely interesting (for example, a quartet of horseback heralds of the zombie apocalypse practically disappears with no fanfare) in favor of blandly rehashing an already dry regurgitation thatís grown stale in the past seven years. This is the cinematic equivalent of a dry heave.
Part of me would like to read this entire endeavor as a meta commentary on Hollywoodís dearth of ideas, as theyíre constantly strip-mining original material and recycling it. Iíd call it repurposing, but that would imply something like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has a purpose.
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