Director: Jonathan Levine
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, John Malkovich, Rob Corddry
Out today in theaters, Warm Bodies is Jonathan Levine’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed directorial debut 50/50. The charming warmth and surprising emotional depth of 50-50 made Levine’s ninety-degree turn into zombie-film territory a head-scratching proposition, but it is clear from the outset that Warm Bodies is not a typical zombie film. The movie follows “R” (Nicholas Hoult), a zombie who spends his days wandering aimlessly throughout an airport, feasting on the living while producing a fairly angsty inner monologue that seems more appropriate for a typical teenager than the living dead. R is both of those things – he is the angst-ridden dead, consumed with self-loathing and searching for meaning while strictly adhering to the zombie food pyramid (brains on brains on brains).
The film hinges on a chance encounter between R and Julie (Teresa Palmer), part of a band of good-looking young survivors sent on a mission to recover medicine for their downtown encampment. A roaming pack of zombies happens upon this group of survivors and a typical human-zombie melee occurs. As R and his fellow flesheaters do some PG-friendly feasting on many of Julie’s friends and loved ones, R falls for her and brings her back to the safety of an abandoned airliner that he calls home. Though his communication is severely limited to grunts and head nods, Julie and R spend time together and their budding relationship spurs a profound change inside his undead heart.
The film, based on a novel by Isaac Marion, suffers from slightly underdeveloped human characters but gets by on its unique premise and key performances from Hoult and Rob Corddry as R’s best friend, M. Julie’s human BFF, Nora, played by Analeigh Tipton, is admittedly one-dimensional but funny nonetheless (especially in the film’s more humorless second half). John Malkovich also shows up long enough to cash a paycheck as Julie’s stern military father who (surprise!) really hates zombies, especially when they are enamored with his young daughter.
The film morphs quickly out of romantic-comedy mode as it reaches its action-packed third act. These action pieces are neither intense nor exciting enough to satisfy fans of the genre, and regular viewers of more edgy cable television fare like AMC’s The Walking Dead will likely be unsatisfied with the film’s sterilized take on zombie combat. The presence of “bonies” (bloodthirsty, heartless zombies that move exceptionally fast) adds some suspense, but it’s clear the filmmakers were interested in serving their romantic-comedy storyline first and foremost. As a result, the constant danger of Warm Bodies’ post-apocalyptic world is often alluded to but never felt. This lack of commitment to zombie-related story elements will be fine for many viewers (it was praised in particular by my girlfriend, who dislikes being scared more than anything), but it left me wanting more. At times the film seemed like the victim of an overeager editor or over-involved studio executive hell-bent on sapping personality from the final product, a process that left it lacking the irreverent bite of other recent genre-bending success stories (Edgar Wright’s Zombieland comes to mind). In attempting to gingerly toe the line between romantic-comedy and zombie-action film, the film occasionally lost itself in cinematic limbo.
As much as I mourn opportunities lost for an edgy and irreverent send-up of the currently overexposed zombie-genre, this film is not “bad” by any stretch of the word. In fact, when compared to other films opening in theaters around it, Warm Bodies looks like Citizen Kane. Arriving during the much maligned cinematic dead zone that runs from New Years to the Academy Awards, this is the perfect film for this time of year. Charming, enjoyable, and inoffensive – there is not much more a viewer could ask for from a February night out at the movies (unless said viewer has yet to see one of this year’s many deserving Best Picture nominees). Disillusioned teenagers will surely identify with Julie’s misunderstood love for her zombie-boytoy, Twilight fans will adore Nicholas Hoult and his pale zombie-skin, and less-hardcore horror fans will enjoy having a mainstream zombie film to win over unlikely converts. It is also a quality date movie for couples who don’t rush to buy advanced tickets for the annual “Nicholas Sparks book-turned-cheesy-movie money grab” that rears its corny, melodramatic head every Valentine’s Day. In a month filled with Sylvester Stallone shooting people, ”The Rock” shooting snitches, and Hansel/Gretel shooting witches (in 3-D!); Warm Bodies is a welcome escape. It’s not the best movie you’ll see this year, but it’s a truly refreshing break from the traditionally toxic studio sludge consistently pumped into theaters around this time of year.
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