Warm Bodies (2013)

14 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Ever so often, we get one of those “zombie-movies” in which a strange infection devastates a population, and a small, diverse group of survivors defend themselves against a hostile race of staggering, man-eating walking-dead, and sometimes against each other. “Warm Bodies” is not that movie.

Yes, “Warm Bodies” is a zombie-movie, and the zombies are as predictable as you’d expect. They groan; they stagger; they crave human flesh; they lurch; and they get shot in the head by human survivors of…I don’t know, insert apocalyptic reasoning here. And the people include the usual gun-toting military who will shoot first and ask questions later (if at all), and of course, because they’ve never seen zombie movies, they use a special device to make sure that someone is or isn’t a zombie. Yeah, because it’s so hard to tell by appearance, isn’t it?

But wait! Didn’t I say “Warm Bodies” was not the typical zombie-movie? Yes I did. In fact, this is one of the more original zombie-movies to come around in a long time. It mixes elements of “Dawn of the Dead” with some of “Romeo and Juliet,” and it tells the story from the zombies’ point-of-view! It’s a refreshing move (among many in this movie), as if to say, “Forget the boring people who are trying to defend themselves! Let the zombies tell their story!” For the longest time, zombies have been simply known as walking allegories (who’s more human in the case of people-versus-zombies?) and have become more predictable as a result. Not here.

The main protagonist of “Warm Bodies” is “R” (Nicholas Hoult), a young zombie who narrates the story through thought. He knows he’s a zombie; he knows he has to eat human flesh; and he knows his many limitations. R slouches around the post-apocalyptic ruins of a city, and mostly hangs around an airport terminal and an airplane he has made his home. (And he doesn’t remember his first name, but he knows it starts with “R.”)

Those who have seen “The Princess Bride” will know that “there’s a difference between mostly-dead and all-dead.” Such is the case in “Warm Bodies,” in which the “all-dead,” the truly-dead zombies, have become so hungry for human flesh that they have even eaten their own, revealing skeletal bodies and becoming even more brutal monsters known as “bonies.” There’s no hope for them anymore. Is there hope for the, um, “mostly-dead?” This is where “Warm Bodies” develops its plot, as a young woman named Julie (Teresa Palmer), one of the human survivors, scouts the outskirts of the city with others for supplies, and to shoot up anything that staggers. Surely enough, some zombies find them and R eats the brains of Julie’s jackass boyfriend (Dave Franco). This somehow triggers some of the boyfriend’s memories, and also starts R’s own transformation to live again. His heart starts beating; he can form words; and he is smitten by the appearance of Julie, and he even protects her from the other zombies.

This begins a star-crossed romance, as R takes Julie to his home. Julie learns to trust R; R becomes more human as they spend more time together; they both have fun together; and they form a strong bond together.

Wait a minute—Romeo and Juliet? R and Julie? I just got it! (And yes, there is a balcony scene in this movie.)

Anyway, the idea is that love is the main thing that can bring the dead back to life. At least, that’s the case for the “mostly-dead,” and not the “truly-dead” bonies who have no purpose but to chase and kill.

There are a lot of refreshing pleasures to be found in “Warm Bodies,” thanks to some clever writing by Jonathan Levine (who also directed the film, and whose previous film was “50/50”). For example, R’s narration is full of deadpan-satiric references to other zombie-movie elements; some nice inside-jokes (though with some more obvious than others); and such.

Now I’m going to tell a little story:

I was not so anxious to see this movie. Seeing the trailer, I could see where the originality was coming from with the plot elements of this zombie-human love story (though, admittedly, I kept flashing back to “Twilight”), but I thought I could tell where the movie was going to go. I went anyway, because of a few friends who were saying how much they loved this movie. But I was constantly on guard. I was expecting to predict what was going to happen with each plot development. And because I liked the beginning of the movie so much, as R narrates his life (very clever writing involved here), I whispered a silent prayer that this would not go the way I expected. As it turned out, whatever I thought was going to happen either did happen in a more delicately-handled way, or not at all! For example, when we meet Julie’s cocky boyfriend, I immediately thought he was going to be the boring, jealous villain at whom everything in the obligatory action-climax could be pointed to. And what happens? He’s disposed of quickly!

Then, R takes Julie back home after he first meets her. I asked why Julie didn’t just run, since these zombies are somewhat slow—as it turned out, these zombies are kind of fast when they need to be.

And of course, I kept saying to myself that there would be a “liar-revealed” type of cliché in which Julie would find out that R has eaten her ex-boyfriend’s brains and then suddenly not trust him, and leave him, and there’d be a long, long stretch of time before R has to find some way to make her forgive him so they can be together in the end…Granted, that is a very grim situation and I wouldn’t expect Julie to shrug it off, but then again, the longer they hold out this secret, the more it becomes annoying when you think about it. So how does this secret become revealed to her, and how does she respond to it? All I can say is, it was treated in such a plausible way that I just let it be…

But then of course, there’s the obligatory military force who will shoot any corpse that comes their way, and ask no questions. Yeah, yeah, yeah—the leader of the force is Julie’s father (John Malkovich); he’s a hardass; he won’t listen to reason; he’ll never understand R and Julie’s love; blah blah blah, I kept waiting for this one. It’s the “prejudice” element that comes about in every one of these movies. But even this plot element is well-handled! And so is the climax in which the military doesn’t know which to shoot—the zombies or the bonies who seem to be fighting each other?

I wouldn’t want to give away too much, but you get my point. “Warm Bodies” ultimately won me over by how smart its writing was. Whichever direction I expected it to take, it either didn’t take or did take it, but with nice touches. I actually wanted to yell in the theater.

Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer, as the two leads, are both winning and appealing in “Warm Bodies.” Hoult gives probably the best “earnest performance” that an undead character could be given. Palmer gives her character Julie good doses of sweetness and spunkiness—even if she does a few dumb things, you forgive her because of that. Both actors exhibit convincing chemistry on-screen, and they manage not to make a romance between a beautiful girl and a walking corpse less icky than you might imagine.

Of the supporting cast, there are two actors who deserve mention. One is Rob Corddry, who does a great job as R’s friend M who has his own transformation as well; and the other is Analeigh Tipton, who is very funny as Julie’s friend who awkwardly accepts the fact that Julie is with a zombie. John Malkovich is…well, let’s face it, he’s John Malkovich.

I can’t think of any recent zombie movie with this much heart added to it. “Warm Bodies” is sweet, original, nicely-directed, and over in just an hour-and-a-half. And even though some of it is silly (and the herky-jerky effects of the bonies don’t help much either), the movie has the nerve to be upbeat and optimistic with its subject matter, as well as tell the familiar story from a different viewpoint. It’s a terrific film; my favorite film of 2013 so far.

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