Pride and Prejudice and ZombiesReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/04/16 18:00:00
In a just an ideal world, the title “Pride & Prejudice and Zombies” would have turned up as a punchline in a MAD Magazine article about how publishers of classic literature might try to spice up their musty wares in order to attract an entirely new audience and it probably would have scored a decent laugh—the mere idea of juxtaposing Jane Austen’s exquisite romantic comedy of manners with flesh-eating ghouls sounds amusing, at least in theory. Alas, because we live in a terrible world—and one with suspect copyright laws to boot—some idiot not only came up with the jokey title but, in defiance of all rational thought, actually decided to write the damn book, albeit by including enough of Austen’s original text to earn her arguably the least impressive co-writing credit since the 1929 version of “The Taming of the Shrew” allegedly went out with credits that said that it was written by Shakespeare with “additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.” To make matters worse, the thing became a best-seller—though I wonder as to how many people actually made it all the way through and how many gave up after a couple of chapters once the joke wore off—and inspired an entire cottage industry of sequels, spinoffs, rip-offs and the like.And now, following years of rumors, false starts and a revolving door of actors and directors who signed on and quickly found better things to do—at one point, Natalie Portman, who co-produced, was supposed to star and David O. Russell was announced as the director—the film version of “Pride & Prejudice and Zombies” has at long last hit the big screen to prove that you can’t keep a terrible idea down, no matter how hard you may try. Whatever amusement that this historical horror/comedy mashup might have once inspired has long since dried up and what is left is a terrible botch of already unpromising material that straddles any number of genres and tones and somehow manages to completely miss the mark in regards to every single one of them. The problem isn’t that this is a one-joke movie—it is that it is a one-joke movie where the one joke a.) is not particularly funny in the first place and b.) is repeated ad nauseam for nearly two solid hours.
For those who have somehow managed to go about their lives without any exposure to this nonsense, “Pride & Prejudice and Zombies” follows the basic plot of the Austen classic but has been reset in an alternative depiction of Georgian-era England in which a plague has swept the land that has caused the dead to come back to life feeling a bit peckish for human flesh. Although large swaths of the countryside have fallen victim, the more prosperous families have managed to soldier on as they always do—by ignoring the problem through elaborate balls and games of whist until the problem is first in their faces and then chewing said faces. Others have taken to learning how to protect themselves by learning defensive skills from the mysterious Orient alongside the usual rules regarding deportment—while the well-to-do favor the Japanese methods, the smarter and more resourceful get their lessons from China, possibly because China is now a huge market for international cinema and even a minor shout-out along these lines could mean millions at the box-office.
Making the best of this situation from their country estate are the five Bennett sisters—headstrong proto-feminist Elizabeth (Lily James), dreamy romantic Jane (Bella Heathcote) and the generally overlooked Kitty (Suki Waterhouse), Mary (Millie Brady) and Lydia (Ellie Bamber)—who live with their parents (Charles Dance and Sally Phillips) and endure both the occasional zombie attacks, from which they handily defend themselves with weapons hidden in their garters, and attempts by their mother to marry them off to prominent men in order to secure the family’s fortunes. While Jane catches the eye of the handsome Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth), Elizabeth, who has no particular interest in marriage under any circumstance, finds herself being ardently pursued by her dorky distant cousin, Pastor Collins (Matt Smith) and the dashing Mr. Wickam (Jack Huston). Of course, there is also Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), an arrogant and cold young man who is friends with Bingley and has an uncomfortable past with Wickam. Naturally, Elizabeth cannot stand the guy—not even after he saves her from a zombie—and the two bicker so fiercely that the dead would almost have to rise from the grave before she could ever fall in love with him. Meanwhile, the zombies seem to be growing in numbers and unless they are stopped, they threaten to overtake all of England before too long.
With its combination of romance, social satire, action and gore (the latter of the decidedly PG-13 variety), “Pride & Prejudice and Zombies” is a kind of tonal juggling act that requires a filmmaker to find just the right approach to make it all work or else run the risk of it turning into an ungodly mess. Offhand, I can’t immediately think of too many directors who might have fit the bill but if I had to make a list, writer-director Burr Steers would have been towards the bottom of that list. And yet, the auteur of “Igby Goes Down” and “Charlie St. Cloud” somehow got the gig and his utter unsuitability is evident within the first few minutes because absolutely nothing works. As a new take on Austen, it is clunky beyond belief—it takes itself way too seriously for its own good and moments that would seem to be ripe for satire (such as the possibility of Elizabeth realizing that the upper-class twits hiding away from the world in their heavily defended homes playing whist are just as zombified as those outside the gates) are left frustratingly unexplored. As an action-horror extravaganza, it has, with one brief exception (a shot of a head being cut off from the POV of the head itself that you can see in the trailer), absolutely no stylistic flair of note—the battle scenes are repetitive and the CGI zombies and gore are cartoonish in the worst sense of the word. Visually, the film is almost startling in its ugliness—the look is so smeary at times that you will find yourself reaching to take off your 3-D glasses to give your eyes a break for a few minutes only to then remember that it is actually in 2-D.
While Lily James occasionally shows enough fire as Elizabeth to make you wonder how she would fare in a straightforward adaptation of the story, she is too often left with little to do but stand around and look alternately fetching or put out until the next time she can cut off somebody’s head. As Mr. Darcy, however, Sam Riley overplays his prickly nature to such an extent that he comes off as even less human than the zombies. Most of the other actors cannot quite figure out if they are supposed to be playing the material in a straightforward manner or with a wink and therefore try to negotiate the two approaches in ways that never quite gel with the material or each other. In the second half, Lena Headey turns up as the imperious Lady Catherine de Bourgh and plays it as a bizarre combination of her character from “Game of Thrones’ and Angelina Jolie’s character from “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” that seems to have come from another and possibly better movie—the role makes absolutely no sense but she does bring a little life to the otherwise moribund proceedings.Other than her turn, “Pride & Prejudice and Zombies” is a spectacle so bereft of vision, wit, splendor or even a point that it forced me to consider the possibility that at last there was a period horror mashup that could make “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” seem competent by comparison. Sure, that film was bottomlessly awful but at least it had a couple of moments of genuine visual flair to help move the other idiocies along. By comparison, this is a tedious waste that will unite Jane Austen fans and zombie freaks alike in utter boredom. It isn’t funny, it isn’t exciting, it isn’t romantic and the only scary part comes at the very end with a bit that suggests that a sequel may be in the offing. Frankly, I cannot imagine sitting through another two hours of this stupidity but if it proves successful enough to warrant more films of this type, I suppose I had better get to work on my spec script for “Northanger Abbey Vs. Mega-Shark.”
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