WARM BODIES

If nothing else, this movie will leave you a Nicholas Hoult fan.

Warm Bodies has sort of been marketed to the twee/Twihard crowd. Quirky hipster romance… with zombies! appeals about as much as overwrought, mentally unstable romance with zombies. Thankfully, Warm Bodies is not like that. The first clue that it’s more than just cashing in on the newish preoccupation with love stories about formerly scary monsters and insecure Mary Sues comes from, as usual, who made it. Johnathan Levine is this movie’s first and foremost not-so-secret weapon. You might remember a movie called 50/50 that made you cry. Yeah, he made that.

But really, this is Nicholas Hoult’s movie. After seeing his performance in this, I finally get why they fucking cast him in everything. He’s that good. And since the premise, let alone the conflict and resolution, of this story completely relies on his engaging the audience, it’s even more noticeably a big win for him.

In spite of what ridiculous “purists” are going to say about the idea of a zombie rom-com, Warm Bodies is fucking delightful. It’s tonally sharp, interested in the zombie apocalypse as a grand metaphor (been a while since we saw that shit), and charming like a stuffed penguin that maybe eats brains sometimes.

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A running internal monologue provides a lot of that charm.

R (Nicholas Hoult) is a zombie. In his version of the zompocalypse, zombies are certainly dead but still possessed of a certain level of awareness. They eat brains to avoid degrading to “Bonies”, which are skeletal ghouls that are pure monster. Eating brains also lets them experience the thoughts and memories of the living person, the closest they can get to memories or dreams of their own. Meanwhile, zombies like R shuffle around until they get hungry enough, going through motions and barely capable of understanding what’s happening around them. R, however, is a bit different. He collects artifacts of the “living world” and runs an internal monologue that reflects the “awkward outsider” trope to a tee. This kind of maneuver is part of why the movie works so well. It’s not as simple as just R being an extra-smart or aware zombie and therefore catalyzing the events of the story. Instead, Warm Bodies bothers with infusing details with thematic significance, allegory, and often funny little commentaries on the real world. You know, like fiction should.

Warm Bodies is known by now for being a very loose adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Unlike that play and most other adaptations of it, Warm Bodies is not interested in the nihilism and self-destruction of young, forbidden love. Rather, it is concerned with love as a metaphor for transforming people, even entire societies, and a vehicle with which to break down boundaries, achieve communication and fellowship, and basically just be good humans. The movie is utterly committed to this theme and while it sometimes goes broad and a bit cheesy, there’s so much unflappable resonance to that theme that it can’t help but work 90% of the time.

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It’s not clear how long after the initial plague this takes place, but I’d say around 5 years. These guys were early teens when it started.

Cynical fucks will hate this. They don’t want to see a zombie apocalypse that isn’t a gut-wrenching survival fantasy full of harsh decisions, loss, death, and ennui. Warm Bodies pays some lip service to these tropes but mostly for humor’s sake. This is a very light-hearted movie, with its darkness kept firmly in place as a source of irony. There are tons of funny, gross realizations to make which feed back into that (probably harder to achieve than it comes off) balance between the darkness of the setting and the irony which which it is played. Examples would include the first kiss between R and Julie (Theresa Palmer) where you think “fuck, he’s eaten people and brains” or when you realize that R has been carrying around Perry’s (Dave Franco) brains in his pocket for days. This is gross, zombie-perfect stuff.

I think the right attitude about this is to let a genre as played out as zombies just go where it’s going to go. I can’t fault any good story told well, even if it’s a huge departure from the “classic” presentation of tropes that make up a genre. In that sense, I don’t really fault Twilight or The Vampire Diaries for making nosferatu into sophmoric, lovesick idiots because whatever man, who wants to see the Dracula story again this decade? These are not particularly good stories, nor well told, and that is where the fault is. Not with the fact that vampires have turned cuddly. If Warm Bodies can turn zombies cuddly and justify it within its own story logic, there’s no harm and tons of happy to be had.

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The movie is smart about using “worse zombies” as a way to give us a reason to sympathize with the regular kind.

When R eats Julie’s boyfriend Perry’s brain, he starts to get to know her. Instead of letting her get eaten by his friends, he rubs some zombie grease (seriously) on her and it puts off the scent long enough for him to lead her to his home. Earlier, we saw him trying to get a few words out to his best friend M (Rob Corddry). As he spends time with Julie, the words start coming easier and he communicates with her on about the same level as a non-English speaker. Something is changing in R as a direct result of encountering Julie.

As the movie progresses, this change spreads to other zombies and they all begin experiencing glimmers of life: they start blinking, have dreams and memories, and can talk more. The pattern of the story is very clear: zombies are aware of themselves but can’t help it generally, but they want to be better. They are the Other, who seem dangerous but are misunderstood. The humans don’t know that they aren’t killing mindless “corpses” (as they call them), and the zombies can’t stop hungering for human flesh or craving the approximate experience of life via delicious brains. Giving all these things such significance and detail acts as a supporting mechanism for the places where the movie stays vague, like why R and Julie’s connection catalyzes a cure or why/how the Bonies are aware of it and target them specifically. The lack of explanation for this stuff will rankle some people and that’s understandable. However, I’d say that there’s no explanation for “love beats zombie” that would make any satisfying kind of sense. It’s a part of the metaphoric, allegorical nature of the story. You kind of just have to roll with it or there is no story.

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Malkovich seems like a villain for a bit, and the movie could have used more of him, but what’s there is good and he’s very generous to the younger actors.

As Julie gets to know R, she begins to develop a relationship with him. Due to the constancy of death in her life, she bounces back pretty fast and is altogether a resilient sort of character. The implication is that she gets this inner strength from her dad, Grigio (John Malkovich) who is the tough, matter-of-fact leader of the walled city that may be the last refuge of humanity. His policy is shoot first, ask questions later. Julie is more curious, a bit rebellious, and very alive. One of the only good things about I am Number Four was Palmer as the badass Number Six. She just comes off as spirited, real, and pretty tough. While Hoult is the MVP of the movie, Palmer is a very special sort of young actress too and I look forward to seeing more of her.

Julie’s father is the main obstacle, it turns out, in proving to the humans that the zombies have begun to change. Due to what Julie and R have set off, the Bonies are surging on the city which has thrown the place into full alert. In order to make this whole work out to a happy ending for everyone, the zombies have to join forces and help the humans whilst Julie convinces her dad not to kill R.

This climactic stuff seems a bit unwieldy as I write it but it’s executed beautifully in the movie. In fact, it’s one of the most satisfying third acts I’ve seen in a while in a genre comedy.

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Warm Bodies is light, fluffy, but never lazy.

Cynicism or just being tired of ironic send-ups of beloved genres will cause mileage on this movie to vary wildly. Bear that in mind as you watch. I think it’s a principle of value to not give movies shit for the baggage you bring to them, unless of course they are trying to provoke or manipulate that baggage. Warm Bodies means you no harm, but it wants to get into your brain. You shouldn’t be sorry to let it.

I also want to give a shout out for the soundtrack. I don’t typically spend much time talking about the music in movies. In Warm Bodies there is very little (but noticeably stirring when there) score. It’s a heavily diagetic-musical movie (meaning most music is actually being listened to within the movie, not just for us). The soundtrack is indie but accomplished and sublimely used. Every snatch of song in it is almost perfectly placed and edited to evoke and maintain tone. This is masterful use of soundtrack, on like a John Hughes level, and worth talking about just to appreciate it. For an example of the indie-ness of the music, though, consider that it practically opens with a Feist song (The Bad in Each Other) and ends with one by The National (The Runaway). Both of these songs are perfectly placed and used, as is a particularly nice placement of Guns ‘N’ Roses early on. This is a soundtrack with shit like Bon Iver and M83 on it. This is not a seal of quality on a movie by any means, but this is good music well used. Like the good actors, good script, and good attention to detail… everything in Warm Bodies is well used.

So yeah. This is the most I’ve liked any 2013 movie I’ve seen thus far. Consider that by now, both Chronicle and The Grey had come out last year. 2013 is not off to a great cinematic start, but movies like Warm Bodies are around and waiting for you to watch them. So go do it.

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Or I’ll rub mah zombie grease on yah.

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