THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Zombies are everywhere in pop culture these days: in movies, in books, on television. I've always loved zombie tales. Many of the core elements – people becoming Something Else, survivors trying to adapt to a world that has radically changed – are inherently disturbing and dramatic. But how do the zombies feel about it all? It's a question that, as far as I know, has never been asked before. The undead are typically portrayed as mindless, emotionless, brain-eating automatons. Warm Bodies, based on the best-selling young adult novel by Isaac Marion, turns the genre on its ear, giving us a sensitive lead character who decides to be a better zombie after meeting a pretty girl.
Nicholas Hoult (X-Men: First Class, About a Boy) plays R, one of many zombies who hang out at an otherwise abandoned airport. He even lives inside one of the planes. R (he can't remember his name, aside from the first letter) spends his days looking for food and grunting at his “best friend,” M (Rob Corddry). One day, he and some others stumble upon a band of human survivors. For reasons it would probably be a spoiler to reveal, he opts to save one of them, a young woman named Julie (I Am Number Four's Teresa Palmer), from his hungry cohorts. Julie is stunned to find this undead guy taking care of her and protecting her. They begin to develop a bond over the few days they spend in his plane, waiting until it's safe for her to leave the airport. The companionship and sense of connection begins to change R, to restore a piece of his humanness. Thinking that his changing state could provide a clue as to how to end the zombie apocalypse, Julie makes plans to tell her father, Grigio (John Malkovich). Unfortunately, he's one of the key leaders in the effort to thoroughly wipe out the undead.
Warm Bodies brings several new ideas to the zombie genre. In voiceover, R tells us that zombies eat brains because it provides them with short-term access to their dinner's memories and emotions. In other words, it's a link to their living days. This idea figures prominently into the plot in several different ways. Another new concept is that zombies can somehow change. R becomes conflicted about his desire to eat people as the story goes on, and Julie helps him reconnect with the life force that supposedly is lost in the undead. We also find out that the undead can talk in short bursts, should they muster up the desire. Talking zombies! All these ideas make the film feel different from your average zombie story.
Director/adapter Jonathan Levine made two previous films I really liked, 50/50 and The Wackness. He provides this movie with a visual/storytelling style that makes the action scenes exciting while still keeping the relationship scenes emotionally grounded. Warm Bodies is most definitely not a lark. It takes the bond between R and Julie quite seriously, then uses it to build to a final act that stands for something. I never thought I'd use the word “sweet” to describe a zombie flick, but that's exactly what Warm Bodies is. The love story in this single movie is not only more authentic, but also more touching than the girl-and-vampire romance in the entirety of the Twilight saga.
Credit is also due to Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer. They have terrific chemistry together. Hoult does something pretty amazing in this role: he underplays. Knowing that the makeup will do a lot of the heavy lifting for him, Hoult focuses on bringing out the character's re-awakening emotions. He gives R a vacant stare that eventually becomes focused (on Julie, of course), a stammering vocal style that evens out, and a lumbering gait that evolves into something more confident. The actor does all this without ever overacting or looking silly. For her part, Palmer successfully convinces us that Julie becomes comfortable with her zombie guy. She sees beyond the rotting skin and penchant for gnawing on brains to see the young man that used to be, and may still be somewhere inside. Together, they give the story its heart.
Warm Bodies would have benefited from further development of the Malkovich character. Dramatically, it seems like he should be a greater threat than he is. Similarly, a morbidly fascinating plot point about someone R ate is brushed off too quickly, considering the ramifications of it. I wanted the plot to deal with that little matter a whole lot more than it does. Still, I have to admit that this is a zombie movie unlike any I've ever seen before. Funny and surprisingly romantic, Warm Bodies works as both an undead adventure and a love story. The Walking Dead's Rick Grimes would hate the idea that “walkers” are portrayed with such sympathy and, yes, humanity.
( out of four)
Warm Bodies is rated PG-13 for zombie violence and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.
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