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Terminator Genisys, which is currently in theaters, is heavy with self-knowing camp, especially when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s onscreen. His performance registers as one long, self-effacing joke, his dialogue touching on how he’s too old to be an action star anymore and how limited he’s always been as an actor. (One running gag involves him struggling to smile in a realistic manner.) And yet the film inspires a certain sympathy for his character, a killer cyborg reprogrammed to be a loving parent. The younger, blander heroes refer to him endearingly as “Pops,” and the plot hinges on several acts of self-sacrifice he performs on their behalf. As in the Ivan Reitman comedies Kindergarten Cop and Junior, the big joke here is that Schwarzenegger, despite his gladiator appearance, is actually a sentimental papa at heart. That’s still funny, right?
One of the interesting things about Schwarzenegger’s previous film, Maggie (currently a featured rental at Redbox kiosks), is how it repurposes this joke into the stuff of serious drama. (Well, almost serious.) In it, the bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned-politician-turned-actor plays a midwestern farmer struggling to make time count with his teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin) before she mutates into a flesh-eating zombie. The film spends little time on the supernatural component of the story, focusing instead on the father-daughter relationship. It’s a subdued affair, couched in arty images of the American heartland and twinkly music by David Gordon Green’s regular composer, David Wingo. As opposed to Terminator Genysis, Schwarzenegger’s displays of emotion are presented sans quotation marks. You might find yourself laughing anyway, but you can’t blame the filmmakers for not trying.
The film begins with an act of paternal compassion, as Schwarzenegger reclaims the runaway Maggie from a government-operated quarantine, pledging to take her home to her family. (We later learn that he’d been searching for her for three weeks.) Back on the farm, he tries to create the semblance of normal life, so that she might live in comfort for the last of her days as a human being. Like George A. Romero’s zombie films, Maggie plays as an open-ended allegory. The central relationship could be read as a metaphor for what it’s like to care for a terminally ill family member or the challenge of preserving traditional family values amid galvanic social change. Screenwriter John Scott III and director Henry Hobson maintain an intimate perspective, so that the political implications, for the most part, aren’t clear. (There are some broad swipes against big government in the negative depiction of the quarantines, but these are easily least convincing aspects of the film.)
More obvious are Hobson’s stylistic influences. The poetic flourishes come secondhand, mostly from Green’s work and The Tree of Life, and there are shades of Clint Eastwood’s films in the black-and-gray-heavy cinematography. Maggie specifically invokes Million Dollar Baby when Schwarzenegger learns to say goodbye to the young woman who means so much to him. His performance is hardly as accomplished as Eastwood’s in Baby, but it reflects a similar self-effacement, with the star playing against his screen myth as a dominating, macho figure. I suspect an autobiographical subtext at play, both here and in Genysis. It doesn’t seem coincidental that Schwarzenegger would take two self-effacing roles in a row after it was revealed he’d been having an affair with his maid for years. It’s as if these films were meant to deflect the embarrassment he faced in real life—or perhaps he was drawn to the apocalyptic scenarios of both movies because they made his troubles seem meager by comparison.