An idea sprung from the fertile grounds of pumping public domain titles with fanboy fodder, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies shames its heritage. Darcy (the old, tired, and Palpatine-voiced Sam Riley) and Elizabeth Bennet (a truly competent Lily James) spar over their inner demons and the undead, led by Jack Huston’s bland Lieutenant Wickham. I did not have the pleasure of understanding its appeal.
This Hot Topicification of culture mashes elements up purely for recognition. Geeky appropriation, seen most prominently in the Big Bang Theory school of comedy, thrusts aspects of entertainment forward — without commentary — in lieu of creativity. With this approach, similarly seen in Seth MacFarlane products (because that’s what they are, products), narrative and/or joke structure becomes irrelevant. The show, or film, has already sold you on rote time-occupation, like a bar’s milquetoast cover band whose inoffensive and vaguely familiar sounds fill the aural atmosphere with white noise.
And if you had this on in the background, it could almost pass as a slack-jawed Austen adaptation until the truly horrible sound mixing gave you a heart attack with gunshots registering like jet engines at a tea party. Jump scares in bad horror movies are often accompanied by loud cues in the score to make up for a lack of suspense. Here, the movie is so utterly flat, it has to blast a rifle in your eardrum to get any reaction. That fault lies mainly with the script, which seems as if a twelve-year old boy played Mad Libs with the a high school stage adaptation of Austen, inserting “zombie apocalypse” at every occasion unoccupied by watered-down attempts at mannered wit. Which, as far as I can tell from my research, is how the source novel was written.
A deluge of voiceover, explanation, and exposition — complete with maps, war charts, and a strange (but genuinely charming) cut-out pop-up book that accompanies the opening credits — drown any hope of vitality the film may have had. The morality and plot of the film, despite the hand-holding, are impossible to follow, as wars, balls, tea parties, schemes, and bizarrely combative discussions between sisters all feel as equally light and dreary as the next, like equal servings of spoiled plain yogurt. A key plot point involves Darcy effectively slaughtering hundreds of innocent people, for which we are asked to applaud. “How clever! How heroic!”, writer/director Burr Steers must’ve thought while defecating on Jane Austen’s grave.
Steers delivers laughs like an expert anti-comedian, fumbling punchlines into self-seriousness, creating collisions of the absurd. Many serious moments of the film led to crowd-wide laughs, each of us looking at the others in disbelief. Not “How delightfully droll! Zombies and Jane Austen!” disbelief, more like “Someone tried their best and came up with this” disbelief.
Sadly, any hope of the source novel’s social commentary is lost, all gender discussion devolved to battle, though a few instances of what could’ve been shine through. The effeminate men and tough ladies seem like a clever reversal of gender roles, until Darcy whirls into battle — his charms and roguishness replaced by the boring machismo found in every generic action hero. This drains the film of its wit, most notably during a climatic repartee between Liz and Darcy who no longer spar with words but with sloppy, clothing-rending combat. Tonally, we’re not sure if this is slapstick, romantic, or angry. Neither, I assure you, did the director.
The action, which you think may be serviceable in a film that muscles drama out with zombies, is absurd, cartoonish without being fun (think Star Wars prequels), self-serious, and so incomprehensible it’s impossible to tell if the fault lies with the camerawork or the choreography. Likely both.
When there’s not a fight, the film crawls. Letter reading provides an opportunity for the movie to remind us of the footage we saw earlier, as each scene not shot in one of the elegantly decorated indoor sets looks like the jokingly bad fields and castles of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Digitally rendered buildings and landscapes dip below the quality of bad TV movies, blurring the screen and the lines between hilarity and embarrassment.
Speaking of hilarity and embarrassment, supporting actors Matt Smith, Lena Headey, and Charles Dance — aware of their absurd presence in an absurd production — embrace this silliness, milking laughs from an arid source. Meanwhile, Darcy growls in his leather trenchcoat, Elizabeth heaves her chest in low-cut gowns, and the rest of the cast remembers their lines well enough.
Smith’s animated parson and Heady’s eye-patched Xena-like noble are what Pride and Prejudice and Zombies needed in spades. It’s a dumb movie with a stupid premise, might as well lean into it. The only halfway interesting parts were the crazy defensive weaponry and creative applications of time period to event (the rich train their offspring in Japan and look down on those trained in China). This is the heart of fantasy or sci-fi, letting us explore the impossible through the eyes of what we know. Historical literature transports us to the past, providing social commentary, wit, and timeless humanity. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a fire unworthy of dumpsters, burns out slowly, another forgettable entry in a fad that will hopefully stay dead.
From AAA TV to Z-movies, Oklahoma City-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.