Thursday, February 2, 2017

Pride and Predjudice and Zombies (2016)

Back in 2009, author Seth Grahame-Smith started a new literary genre by adding a zombie threat to Jane Austen's classic novel Pride and Prejudice.  The result became a best seller, launching a slew of other mixes of historical figures and classic works with modern horror elements.

As expected, a film studio bought the rights to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  But it took years before the film was produced and released into theaters.  By that time, the literary craze sparked by the novel had run its course and such mashups were now being made for the Syfy channel, not cinemas.

The film deals with Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) and her sisters, as their mother tries to find them suitable husbands in a country under siege from the undead.  The Bennet girls are all accomplished zombie killers, as self defense has become a desirable trait for young English women to learn, but they still face a dismal future if they are unmarried when their father dies.

It appears few gentlemen want to dance with the lady 
wearing a katana under her petticoat.

Elizabeth's sister Jane (Bella Heathcote) finds a suitor, the rich Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth), much to her mother's delight.  Elizabeth catches the eye of Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), a leader in the fight against the zombies.  However, Elizabeth's attitude towards him sours as she learns of his past, mostly through George Wickham (Jack Huston), who tells her Darcy cheated him out of his inheritance.  Darcy also convinces Bingley to leave the area, destroying his growing relationship with Jane and enraging Elizabeth.

The book is a fun read, but the film deviates from Grahame-Smith's novel in an attempt to build up the action.  The added story elements, though set up early on, work against the film and compound some flaws in the script.  As I'm about to discuss those changes, please be aware of MINOR SPOILERS in the next four paragraphs.

Wickham takes Elizabeth to the Church of Lazarus, where some of the undead have retained their humanity by taking a communion of pig's brains, rather than feast upon human victims.  Wickham hopes Elizabeth will help him convince Darcy's aunt, Lady Catherine (Lena Headey), to forge a truce with the sentient zombies and enlist their aide to prevent an attack by the more feral creatures.  But Lady Catherine ignores his advice, setting the stage for a large, climatic battle.

The idea of some zombies retaining their intelligence is set up early in the film, when one tries to issue a warning to Elizabeth before Darcy kills it.  The less-than-hostile actions of this zombie are never investigated by any of the characters, which seems rather odd.  And as Elizabeth and her sisters discover zombies setting traps to ensnare fresh victims, no one shows any real curiosity in the change in zombie behavior.

Oh look.  A talking zombie.
That's odd.
Let's kill it now!

The problems are compounded during the film's climax.  In order to rescue Elizabeth's sister, Darcy feeds the sentient zombies human brains.  His reasons for doing so are unclear, and do nothing to negate the fact that he's added more soldiers to the ranks of the ravenous undead.

Darcy sets off on the rescue mission alone, as if he expects the very capable Elizabeth to stay behind the battle lines and await his return.  It's not a surprise, as the script sets up Darcy to be the lead in ways I will not spoil here, but it has the unfortunate effect of casting Elizabeth in the role of the dues ex machina, rather than a true participant.


The film hints early on of an inevitable battle between the humans and a large zombie army, but the budget appears to have curtailed the filmmaker's plans.  The skirmishes either take place off screen, or simply involve zombies running about as Darcy and Elizabeth race about avoiding them.  The film would have been better served had the filmmakers abandoned the idea of a massive battle, rather than trying to work around their inability to show it.

There was a big battle here.
See, I have a sword, and there are soldiers.
Too bad you missed all the action.

And by lessening the epic scale of the zombie/human conflict, the budget could have been focused on more minor skirmishes.  The early onscreen fights are not very energetic or interesting, and the characters rely more on firearms than the swords and knives they carry at all times.  A bit more time and money spent to improve the fight choreography and give the cast stage combat training would have paid off more than trying to end the film on an epic note.

The cast is good, but struggle with a script that is too serious.  I'm not saying the film needed to be more comedic, or the actors play their roles for laughs (as Matt Smith does, making his character more off putting than humorous).  But the script needed to have more fun with the concept, rather than have the actors acting as if they were in an installment of Masterpiece Theater.  Only Headey seems ready to have some fun with her role, with her first scene showing she's ready to chew up the scenery.  But it appears the budget wasn't able to cover replacing the sets, as her role can only be considered a glorified walk on. 

They should have let her turn the scenery into mulch.
It would have been glorious.

But the film's biggest sin is that, for a movie about a group of sisters ready to battle the undead, the film is light on letting the ladies kick ass.  It obvious they are always well armed, as the film includes a scene of them dressing for a ball while tucking multiple weapons under their dresses.  But we only get a single scene of them fighting as a unit and, as I mentioned earlier, it's too short. True, the use of firearms is a safer option when fighting zombies, but just look at the poster and tell me you didn't want to see these ladies in their finest gown slashing through a bunch of zombies as often as possible.

We only get to kick ass once, sisters.
Let's make it count!

And the script does the main sisters no favors, cranking up the romance and putting their warrior instincts fall to the wayside.  Jane is reduced to the role of a jilted romantic interest, never taking up a weapon soon after Bingley leaves.  And Elizabeth, who should be the main character, isn't given enough action.  Her fight against Darcy, as she confronts him with her misguided assumptions about his character, lacks any spark or ability to communicate the emotions either are feeling.  And, as I mentioned before, Elizabeth's role during the climax is quite disappointing.

Even Headley's character, a major ass-kicker in the novel, never gets a chance to fight, her combat skills only seen during the aftermath of a battle during a flashback.  Rather than letting the women take the main stage, writer/director Burr Steers sets up a standard male fantasy troupe, the brave male warrior finding a hot chick who can fight, but might change her ways on her wedding day.

I will mention, for the gore hounds, this film is rated PG-13 and relies on CGI, not practical, effects.  This shouldn't be a surprise, as most studios assume a R-rated won't bring in a large audience.

But increasing the gore wouldn't have help Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  The film had the potential to be a fun little romp, with women dressed in formal gowns kicking zombie ass, some romantic entanglements and a bit of campy fun thrown in for good measure.  Instead, the zombie mayhem is constrained by a tight budget, most of the cast is too somber, and the warrior women promised in the poster often are given little to do other than pine over their relationship woes.  To paraphrase Austen and Grahame-Smith, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a film-goer watching one scene of ass-kicking women must be in want of more scenes of ass-kicking women." 

Too bad this scene wasn't in the film.
It would have been glorious.

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