Warm Bodies shares a lot in common with last year’s Chronicle, a film I really enjoyed. Like Josh Trank’s debut, warm Bodies is a film with surprisingly large scale that somehow managed to slip under the radar of most film buffs and journalists; I had heard nothing about it until a trailer was released, and it seemed like an affable enough romantic comedy with a genre twist. Also like Chronicle, Warm Bodies was shoved into a January slot by a studio that had little confidence in it. And just like Chronicle, Warm Bodies managed to surprise me.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Warm Bodies is how straight it plays its romance. Irony and cynicism is the ruling class of comedy these days, but as much as I love 30 Rock and Arrested Development, it’s nice to see some good old-fashioned “boy meets girl” storytelling every now and again. Well, as old-fashioned as you can get when one of the lovers is undead.
Of course, the film isn’t without a contemporary sense of humor. It uses R, the film’s rotting hero who can only remember the first letter of his name, as a fantasy everyman. He complains about his girl troubles to his friend M (played ably by Rob Corddry), who responds, “Bitches, man.” Moments like these, as well as R’s internal narration, are inherently comedic coming from the mouths of zombies. But R’s quasi-existential musings about his place in the world and awkward movements around his crush are totally in sync with any average twenty-something. There have been movies with monstrous protagonists before, but this is perhaps the first zombie film to use the creatures to illustrate personal issues rather than as metaphors for the human condition.
Warm Bodies smartly avoids deconstructing its genre, which has been in vogue for genre comedies since Shaun of the Dead in 2004. The zombies here are conduits for humor, but the concept of the undead as a horror trope is rarely the target of jokes. This film could have very easily been another Zombieland, a half-hearted attempt at reworking what made Shaun of the Dead so successful, but Warm Bodies instead decides to go its own way by not tweaking the formula. The romance between the leads is far more important than the fact that they’re zombies, and that’s a key element to making Warm Bodies so successful.
R is played actor Nicholas Hoult, who sci-fi fans will recognize from his role as Beast in X-Men: First Class. His job is unenviable at best; he has to convincingly communicate the feelings and emotions of a character who can barely move or speak. His voiceover narration helps a lot with that, but Hoult manages to turn in a really solid performance regardless. I was less enthused with Teresa Palmer, who plays his love interest Julie. It took me a while to get on board with what she was doing with her performance; she spends half of the film as a badass Sarah Connor-type and the other half as… well, nothing really. I get the feeling that she was trying to underplay her character due to Julie’s backstory, which I won’t spoil here, but it doesn’t come across well. Still, she gives enough for Hoult to play off of.
Speaking of underplaying a character, John Malkovich also let me down. Playing Julie’s father, a hardened general for whom the fight against zombies is personal, it seemed to me that director Jonathan Levine was restraining his performance. When I see a movie with John Malkovich in it, I want to see him go crazy! Maybe that’s something he’s trying to move past, but I wish he had gone just a little bit further in certain moments of tension.
Warm Bodies plays with the zombie mythology in a way that had me a little confounded. It has the traditional beginning to the zombie apocalypse, complete with a rapidly spreading zombie-generating virus, but it extends that trope in an original way. In the movie’s universe, all zombies eventually lose the will to live (or something, it’s not made entirely clear), and they shed their skin and become “Bonies,” skeletal monsters who have no trace of humanity left. Basically, it’s an arbitrary addition to give humans and zombies a common opponent, but it seemed too far removed from common zombie lore for me. If the writer or director is going to make a choice like that, great – but fully commit to it and explore it. I was left wanting to know a lot more about the world than the movie is willing to tell, but I did appreciate the director’s staunch commitment to telling an uncomplicated love story.
Warm Bodies probably isn’t going to be a box office sensation, but if you’re willing to brave the weather next weekend, I recommend you give it a chance. Its marketing has been modest enough for the film to fly under the radar and the film isn’t radical enough to become a cult sensation. Despite that, I’d love to see it become successful. Warm Bodies is funny, sweet, and a perfect choice for a cold winter night.
Verdict: Movie Win