Written & Directed by Jonathan Levine
The early months of the new year usually mean one of two things: either catching up with all the great films from the end of the previous year, those just making their way out to American theaters, or even to Redbox or Netflix; or it means attempting to avoid the temptation to give the new fare a shot, even when it looks like it is probably painfully bad. And the majority of it usually is. But just about every year as well, there will be a couple films that fit the bill: no major A-list stars, a populist story that appears to attract viewers by preying on its typical likes in the most base of ways. Warm Bodies looked that way. A zombie love story? Really? Yet these couple films jump up to surprise you. They rise above the shallow pre-judgment to prove they truly are films worthy of attention. I just usually don’t catch up with them this early in the year.
R (Nicholas Hoult) is a zombie living in a post-apocalyptic world with nothing better to do than mosey around an abandoned airport with fellow zombies. Occasionally they will band together for a lengthy journey into the city, looking for humans to eat for food. Julie (Teresa Palmer) is the daughter of Grigio (John Malkovich), the colonel in charge of protecting the remaining humans behind a huge concrete wall. Seeking adventure and fresh air, Julie and her friends volunteer on the latest patrol to scour the city for much needed medical supplies. Much to their dismay, they encounter R’s group of hungry zombies. But something odd happens to R. He becomes attracted to the human girl, saving her from the other zombies, stowing her away in the airplane he calls home, which is full of eclectic trinkets collected from here and there. R is not your typical zombie.
Warm Bodies tells a very simple story, but what writer/directer Jonathan Levine is able to accomplish is quite astonishing. The simpleness of the story is rather refreshing and becomes a strength of the film. We have seen this before. Boy from the wrong side of the tracks cozies up with and woos the princess. And the film wears its references on its sleeve. We are talking about R(omeo) and Julie(t) after all, aren’t we? It even pokes fun at itself a few times, and that light touch and approach make the film very accessible and engaging throughout. It never takes itself too seriously, and never should. Zombies are constantly finding a way to reinvent themselves. They are slow moving, yet can run; they are a grunting mess, yet now they can talk; they are the cold undead, and yet they can learn to love and their hearts beat again. There are no rules to zombies, and I love that Levine is willing to step outside the box to deliver a unique twist on such a classic tale.
Levine seems to be building a nice string of films together, with his last effort finding a way to tastefully handle the comedy of cancer in 50/50. He very much has a romantic touch and handles his two man actors extremely well, capturing great chemistry, very good performances, and a few perfect moments. Hoult and Palmer take the strange premise and make it work like a charm. Hoult, especially, is able to bring quiet life back to the undead through a series of vacant stares and simple grunts. The film even takes the drabness of a post-apocalyptic world and inserts vibrant colors with some very nice cinematography throughout. The brightness of the life, of the exciting encounters between the swooning leads, is mirrored in the imagery as well as the nice soundtrack, as obvious as it can be from time to time.
It is hard to say how much my expectations affected my final thoughts on the film. But expectations can never be avoided, are always a part of that formula, and are much better served being left at the door of the theater when possible. Warm Bodies is a good film. It manages to take simple characters along with a classic tale and succinctly place them in a modern obsession through the incorporation of zombies. Levine gets it right, capturing a surprising amount of warmness around these characters, while at the same time crafting a landscape which lends itself quite easily for a more critical and open examination not only of discrimination but also of social trends and the deconstruction of communication in this fast paced world of growing technology. It’s back to the basics. It’s back to characters.