Serious question: does what goes in front of the camera matter anymore if the right properties are all in order? In staring down this adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 glorified fanfic—which pairs only the best feminist bits of O.G. fangirl Jane Austen’s novel with the undead, martial arts, and former timelord Matt Smith—it’s quickly apparent that visual language is secondary to the Text, one that varies greatly from its source. Though it’s not my place to judge, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies may very well be a film that’s as unpalatable to longtime fans of the latter novel as it is to the uninitiated.
Not dissimilarly in spirit to one of Matthew Inman’s The Oatmeal comics, how these Regency-era gentry got to be incredibly strange creatures who stopped living is quickly related through the film’s pop-up book-style opening credits: playing upon the spread of syphilis (which is almost certainly giving Grahame-Smith too much credit), the PPZ zombie virus came from the colonies via the French and quickly decimated the English countryside. To prepare their heirs for the brain-eating hordes, young aristoes are sent to Japan (the equivalent of Eton) or China (the other place) for martial arts training. How exactly children are transported across continents while there’s an army’s worth of walking dead about—or why they didn’t just pick up chainmail and maces instead—goes unexplained. This sort of suspension of disbelief would be fine were the fight choreography not wholly unimaginative. To quote Hou Hsiao-hsien: these girls can’t fight! (Of course, having the women fight in floor-length, empire-waisted gowns gives a nice flavor of the era, but doesn’t really lend itself to sick flip kicks…or even running.) Similarly, the sub-Walking Dead zombie gore effects are staged in a tired, predictable way that won’t thrill horror fans.
Tired is also a useful way to describe how you’ll feel while watching Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Lovely Lily James (a refugee from Downton Abbey) and Sam Riley (yes, Ian Curtis in Control) are forced to spit out an excessive amount of dialogue, which, thanks to the breakneck pacing of the film, gives Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s love-hate romance the feeling of one of those commercials where two people talk at each other as quickly as possible about cell phone plans. The convoluted plot—which involves a congregation of not-fully turned zombies that accept pig’s brains as the eucharist and an undead putsch on London—doesn’t exactly help abate a sense of being overwhelmed either. Its odd self-seriousness is decidedly against the character of Grahame-Smith’s original project, almost nonsensically doubling-down on making a certain low-born military man a total fucking bastard; but then, just because Jane Austen never wrote a sequel doesn’t mean that the movie can’t set one up. Over-reliant on referential humor and pausing only to wink knowingly at the audience, it’s clear here that we’re dealing with a Mr. Wickham rather than a Mr. Darcy. Besides, if you’re really into this sort of thing, you can always watch The Big Bang Theory for free.