Gossip Girl: 19th Century goes on steroids.
I feel very weird writing a positive review about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. For one, it completely bombed with both critics (42% Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (a meager $10 million at the domestic box office). Moreover, most movies at least try to make sense. I’m suffering from serious cognitive dissonance just thinking about a film whose title clearly came from a random name generator. But I’ll stomach my woes and say this straight. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is absurd, unnecessary, and a total insult to Jane Austen. It also turns out to be unexpectedly clever, absolutely entertaining, and utterly hilarious. Forget profundity: this movie is just too much fun to turn down.
PPZ takes us to 18th-century England, super-tight corsets, boring balls and all. All’s fine and dandy, if you discount the fact that hordes of the ravenous undead, victims of a new outbreak of the bubonic plague, have turned much of England into a war zone. Anxious single women not only have to worry about wooing male suitors, but also finding money to study martial arts in China. It’s in this environment that Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James), a raging disciple of the Shaolin Temple, meets and tangles with Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley), who now has killer knife-wielding abilities to go along with his sneering arrogance. Around them swirl all their relatives and friends: Jane (Bella Heathcote) and Bingley (Douglas Booth), the gossipy Mrs. Bennet (Sally Phillips), the clumsy Mr. Collins (Matt Smith), and zombie-slayer Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey). But the stakes are now higher for these bourgeois lovers. London is on the verge of falling to zombies, and a sinister Colonel Wickham (Jack Huston) could possibly be plotting a takeover of all England. Romance, alas, is no longer just a game.
Before I go on, let’s get two things out of the way. First, this movie probably won’t make much sense to anyone unfamiliar with the original novel; it heavily leans on contrasts with the source material for its impact. Second, this project has provoked extremely divided reactions among Jane Austen fans. Depending on which aficionado you ask, this parody is either absolutely brilliant or the perfect reason to launch an Occupy Hollywood movement.
Those disclaimers aside, I’m one of those nutty people who would happily bring all of Jane Austen’s books on a desert island, and I thought the movie was pretty well-done. The people behind this adaptation knew not to take the zombie idea too seriously. Instead of swallowing the essence of P&P, the undead turn out to be the butt of the movie’s big inside joke, a kind of deadpanning satire of the original. Far from destroying the meaning of the novel, this twist actually ends up being a perfectly amusing, 21st-century way of reinforcing Austen’s message. Darcy and Liz may now be launching chairs at each other instead of insults, but the story of their relationship still contains the same time-old critiques of superficial judging and empty social rituals. In a way, this parody actually makes the beauty of Austen’s masterpiece more accessible to those who would otherwise rather go to boot camp than read 19th-century literature.
So the movie’s title is a bit misleading: zombies don’t actually play that central a role in the story. Those looking for a sequel to The Night of the Living Dead will be disappointed. Yet what the movie lacks in frights and thrills, it makes up for with its amusing performances. Lily James and Sam Riley, the duo behind the Liz-Darcy roles, hit it off well with fairly strong chemistry. James, in particular, brings large helpings of gusto and energy to her character; she has the ability to hold your attention whether she’s slicing off heads or consoling her sister. Aside from them, Matt Smith is hilarious as the ungainly, somewhat idiotic Parson Collins, a wannabe gentleman punching way above his weight; Jack Huston is unctuous to a fault as womanizing George Wickham; and Lena Headey has a priceless entrance as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a one-eyed warrior of legend. They’re no substitute for the real deal, but these B-list actors nevertheless do a good job carrying this spoof to fruition.
Overall, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is nowhere nearly as bad as its reputation suggests. Sure, it’s no award winner, and nobody’s expecting this to become a staple of English literature classes anytime soon. (Although a few lazy high school kids probably wouldn’t mind that.) Yet unlike some of its unseemly characters, PPZ has brains in its head. Instead of making another dumb placeholder, heavy on mind-numbing action and light on story, the filmmakers have taken care to keep the exotic third part of the title subordinate to the first two. The result: a movie that entertains with cheeky, comical riffs while staying true to the original novel’s core message of love beyond appearances. Let the purists bemoan the damage done to a literary classic. Personally, I’ll never again look at Austen’s novel without imagining swarms of maimed figures running through the countryside. It’s a rare day experiencing the classics gets to be so darn cool.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)
Starring: Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Lena Headey, Matt Smith
Running Time: 108 minutes
Produced by: Brian Oliver, Allison Shearmur, Sean McKittrick, Natalie Portman, Annette Savitch, Tyler Thompson, Marc Butan
Directed by: Burr Steers
Written by: Burr Steers
Based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Seth Grahame-Smith, which parodies the 1813 Jane Austen novel of the same name.