Dec 14, 2012


On the surface, Warm Bodies sounds like Twilight for zombies.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, I'll go so far as to say it's the exact polar opposite of Twilight.

While the Twilight movies spin the tale of a sullen girl who falls into an incredibly unhealthy relationship with a brooding vampire and, despite numerous warnings, eventually becomes a vampire herself, Warm Bodies shifts the focus to R (Nicholas Hoult), a member of the undead, and how his relationship with the living Julie (Teresa Palmer) actually starts to revive his humanity.

It's also totally fucking hilarious.

As the whimsical titles dance across the screen, we are introduced to our walking dead hero via his inner monologue.  As a rule, voiceover is often considered the crutch of the lazy writer, but here it's actually the movie's greatest strength.  You see, Hoult's R (the moniker he adopts because it was the first letter of his long forgotten real name) might be a zombie, "but [he's] conflicted about it."  Unable to remember his own past, he lives in a plane full of the trinkets and detritus of humanity which he's collected over the years.  (Visually it's very reminiscent of WALL-E's home.)  He wanders through an abandoned airport full of zombies that continue to go through the motions while he imagines what they were like in their past lives.  R even has a "friend" in another zombie played by Rob Corrdry, but their relationship mostly consists of staring at each other, grunting, and the occasional word like "eat," or "city."  At the end of the day, R knows he's not right and longs to regain his humanity.  In fact, he eats brains specifically because when he does, he gains that person's memories and it's the closest he can get to being a real person again.

All this exposition is important because it helps to create a fresh spin on the now overly-familiar zombie tropes.  While these zombies are generally the classic, Romero-style slow, shuffling creatures (and there are a few great jokes to that effect,) here we have a zombie with a great inner-life, pun intended.  He's got a distinct and lovable personality and he wants to better himself, to progress, not just go back to who he was before he was bitten.  By introducing us to R before any of the human characters, we're instantly on his side and we embrace these somewhat dramatic shifts from the generally accepted "rules" of zombie flicks. (This plays in stark contrast to Stephanie Myers's nonsensical sparkly vampires, which never stopped being laughably stupid.)

R soon encounters Julie (Teresa Palmer) when he and his fellow corpses attack a group of young survivors searching for medical supplies.  R is instantly taken with her, and not just in an I-want-to-eat-your-face kind of way.  In the scrum he unwittingly kills her boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco, doing some of his best work to date) and gains his memories, which only endears Julie to him more and at once makes him very protective of her.  While she's equal parts terrified and confused, he leads her back to the airport, hiding out in his curio-laden plane to keep her safe from the other corpses and the "Boneys," desicated zombies who have given up all hope along with their skin.  Over the course of a few days, R and Julie begin to bond and as R's vocabulary quickly builds, she slowly brings him back to life, so to speak.

I know that sounds a little hokey, (She cures him with the power of love!) but what can I say, it just straight up works.  More often then not, such a conceit would fall flat on its face and probably be cringing and awkward, but the alchemy of film-making really works in their favor here.  This is a movie that really does wear its proverbial heart on its sleeve, which should come as no surprise to fans of director Jonathan Levine's previous work like 50/50 or The Wackness.  I'm reminded specifically of 50/50, which not only wrings a lot of laughs out of a mortal subject matter (cancer) but also includes a romance that sounds like a terrible idea on paper, and yet Levine and the actors pull it off, seemingly through likability and sheer force of will.

I really can't say enough good things about Nicholas Hoult.  He's come a long way from his major debut in the Nick Hornby-based About A Boy and he builds on his memorable turn as Hank "Beast" McCoy in X-Men: First Class.  (A streak of good work which seems likely to be broken with the terrible looking Jack The Giant Slayer.)  This kid's got the goods and he looks poised to breakout huge after this.  In many ways he reminds me of a younger James McAvoy and I think he's only about two solid movies away from being a serious household name.  Teresa Palmer is great as Julie and it's easy to see how even a zombie could fall in love with her.  She's both strong and capable, yet emotionally open with a wonderful streak of optimism and curiosity running throughout.  I've always been a fan of Palmer and I think she's turned in solid work in a number of projects (e.g. The Sorcerer's Apprentice) that just didn't really catch on with audiences.  Here's hoping this leads to more opportunities for her.  And I'd say that Rob Corddry is the movie's secret weapon, but at this point Corddry's coimic genius can hardly be considered a secret.  Not only does he get two of the three best lines in the movie (both of which absolutely slayed me,) but it's remarkable just how much he's able to do with a few disjointed sentences and his restrained, undead physicality.  

There were a few nagging details that bothered me.  John Malkovich plays Julie's father, the military leader of the survivors, and he's essentially collecting a paycheck here.  His performance is in no way bad, but given that character description I expected to see a little more of Malkovich's particular brand of crazy on display.  And there are a few logical inconsistencies as well.  It seemed far too easy for R to mask Julie's scent to other zombies, and while the corpses are slow moving, the Boneys all move incredibly fast.  It just doesn't make physical sense that these virtual skeletons would be quicker than people with twice the muscle mass.  Also, it's unclear exactly how much time has passed since the zombie outbreak began, but Julie mentions being able to remember planes and the internet, so it couldn't have been more than ten or fifteen years.  That being said, the survivors live in a major city behind a wall that's at least ten stories high.  And it doesn't even appear to be a sort of hodge-podge, cobbled together wall ala the wall around Woodbury in AMC's Walking Dead.  This thing is uniform and solidly constructed, to the point that it seemed seriously unlikely that a city who has to send people out into the ruins to gather supplies would be able to carry out such a massive construction project in so little time.  Finally, a spoilery note: R (and I would assume most of the other zombies) are repeatedly stabbed and shot throughout the movie, so I would expect that as they come back to life, they would have some pretty serious wounds, not to mention BULLETS rattling around in their re-animated bodies.  Wouldn't they all essentially die from internal injuries the moment they came back?)  That said, these complaints are pretty minor.

The make-up and wardrobe teams do some really solid, effective zombie work here.  They don't revel in the blood so much as the characters themselves.  You won't see the same kind of decaying, wet, gory zombies that are so prevalent on The Walking Dead, but the need to keep the corpses relatable would seem to preclude that option.  That's fine, that's what the Boneys are for, and they're brought to life with some decent CGI.  Levine does a admirable job balancing the simple, personal romance with the world building and some effects-heavy action set pieces, to the point where I wouldn't be surprised to see a studio hand him a larger budget property before too long.

Warm Bodies is a story for the hopeless romantic in all of us.  While the power of love probably wouldn't help you in an actual zombie attack, it's hard not to be won over by the film's positive message: when we all look past our differences and work together, humanity is infinitely more powerful.  It never bashes you over the head with an outright racial or homosexual allegory, even if the film's last shot is a little on the nose.  In a partisan age of vitriol and cynicism, it's refreshing to see movie where the power of optimism and the desire for self-improvement win the day.  Plenty of movies have happy endings but more often than not those endings don't feel earned.  If Warm Bodies followed the Twilight blueprint then, despite R repeatedly telling Julie how awful it is being a corpse, the movie would have ended with Julie getting bitten and the two of them wandering the barren landscape as zombies for all eternity AND THAT WOULD BE CONSIDERED A HAPPY ENDING.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is insane.

To put it simply, Warm Bodies is a remarkable balancing act.  It's emotional, but not "emo."  It's heartfelt, but not cheesy.  It's romantic, but not cloying.  Add in a dash of action and a whole lot of funny...this is a film worth championing.

Warm Bodies staggers into theaters on February 1st.

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