When the Twilight series took its final bow last year (and when Harry Potter ran its course the year before that), we all knew that it was only a matter of time before Hollywood scrambled to fill the vacuum. The Hunger Games is of course well underway (its sequel is set to bow toward the end of this year), but it’s an old established rule that coattail-riders and trend-imitators always come in packs.
Before the title had even rolled on today’s film, I was treated to previews of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones — another adaptation of some teen-lit romance — and The Host, which is yet another of Stephanie Meyer’s creations. That isn’t even getting started on Beautiful Creatures, which comes out in a couple of weeks, or Sea of Monsters, the Percy Jackson sequel that comes out this August despite the fact that no one asked for it. Just yesterday, word came in that Disney was moving forward with an adaptation of some young adult sci-fi/romance called “Matched.” They even have a director ready, name of Jon Chu.
With all of this going on, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Warm Bodies is one more Twilight knock-off to throw on the stack. After all, the film is a paranormal romance between two young adults (he’s a monster, she’s a human) and the story first came from a book. The involvement of Summit Entertainment doesn’t exactly help, either.
In a moment, I’ll get to why the comparison is unwarranted. For right now, just bear with me as I go over the premise, and trust me when I say that Warm Bodies deserves better.
The film opens on a world ravaged by zombies. There’s no explanation given as to how the zombies came to be, nor do we ever see the apocalypse in progress. We open on an airport full of zombies and that’s all we get.
It’s here at the airport where we meet our protagonist, who’s naturally among the walking dead. He’s a young man called “R” (Nicholas Hoult), because that’s all of his name that he can remember. R lives a rather boring life, shambling aimlessly around the airport day after day. Interaction between zombies is of course quite rare, but he does strike up the occasional almost-conversation with another zombie called “M” (Rob Corrdry).
If I may digress for a moment, the names of these characters intrigued me. At first, I thought that the names had a peculiar resemblance to the words “are” and “am,” which are of course different forms of the verb “to be.” Then again, the characters might also have been named after Romeo and Mercutio, the male lead and his best friend from Shakespeare’s beloved romantic tragedy. As much as I’d love to think that the filmmakers were implicitly hinting at some deeper existential theme, the latter explanation is far more probable. Especially given the name of R’s love interest.
Julie (Teresa Palmer) is a resident of the local safe zone for humans. In fact, she’s the daughter of General Grigio (John Malkovich), the survivalist nutjob who built the safe zone in the first place. Anyway, Julie goes out with a handful of other survivors to scrounge for supplies in zombie-occupied territory. Also in the party are Julie’s best friend (Nora, played by Analeigh Tipton), and her overzealous boyfriend (Perry, played by Dave Franco).
Based on this film’s predilection for half-baked allusions to “Romeo and Juliet,” I’m guessing that the last two characters are supposed to be analogues for the Nurse and Paris.
So Julie’s team goes out and the inevitable happens: She runs into some hungry zombies, including R and M. Julie is cornered by R, but he doesn’t try to eat her. Instead, he takes her away and tries to protect her from the other zombies. A romance develops over time, and it affects R in some strange ways. Slowly but surely, his skin starts to regain some color. His posture straightens. His vocal skills improve dramatically. It’s not entirely clear what’s going on, but R may or may not be turning back into a human.
Getting back to the initial matter at hand, how is this story different from and better than Twilight? There are a few reasons, but here are the three big ones. First of all, Julie isn’t some godawful Mary Sue who needs the male characters to do everything for her. She may not be action star material and she does commit mild acts of stupidity when the plot needs her to, but she’s still an independent character who can hold her own in a fight.
Secondly, R isn’t presented as some stud who always knows exactly what to say and do. As a zombie who’s courting a human, and as a guy hoping to impress a pretty girl, he’s of course very awkward, insecure, and indecisive about how to approach her. Indeed, R’s neurotic inner monologue — presented to us by voice-over — gives the film some of its most heartfelt and hilarious moments.
Finally, here’s absolutely nothing sexy or alluring about being a monster in this film. In fact — aside from their heightened pain resistance, their total independence from sleep, and the ability to go for days without food — being a zombie really sucks. Everyone’s trying to kill them, they can’t move much faster than a crawl, they can barely communicate with each other, they have to eat human flesh to survive, and they can’t experience any emotions or memories of their own. Instead, they have to absorb the emotions and memories of others by eating brains.
This, in my opinion, is one of the movie’s most interesting conceits. Yes, the humans are justifably afraid of zombies because they eat human brains, but the humans only see the part where a guy’s head is getting clawed into. And that’s the only part they see because zombies are incapable of communicating their reasons why. As such, those among the living have no way of knowing that these zombies are just poor souls trapped in decaying bodies, desperate for a chance to feel human again.
That doesn’t go for all of them, though.
See, by presenting the traditional Romero-esque shuffling zombies that have some shred of humanity in them, the story risked losing the threat of zombies that were truly monstrous and quickly run toward their prey without fatigue or remorse. So this film found a rather clever way to get the best of both worlds: The Bonies.
In this film, Bonies are basically “mature” zombies. They’re corpses who’ve been undead for so long that all of their human vulnerabilities and weaknesses have rotted away. All that’s left are skeletons so powerful and fearsome that even shambling corpses are afraid of them. Yet R posits that there’s another crucial difference about the Bonies: Their utter loss of hope.
The premise of love as a cure for zombieism may sound utterly ridiculous in theory, but it’s actually much more nuanced in practice. In truth, the cure is more about R and his undead ilk regaining their ability to make interpersonal connections and to remember what it was like being truly alive. Though it’s never stated outright, it’s implied that the plague may have been assisted by — or even started by — the cynical status quo in which everyone’s too buried in their mobile phones to see the world and the people around them.
Such commentary about the human condition is hardly new to zombie cinema, of course. Indeed, I’d think less of any zombie film that didn’t draw some parallel between humans and zombies. But this movie went the extra mile and brought the subtext directly into the text. I have mixed feelings about this.
In this film, it’s made explicitly clear that the zombie illness has a strong mental/emotional component. That makes a modicum of sense: Traditionally, the only way to kill a zombie is by destroying its brain. However, it raises all manner of questions regarding how the zombie illness is transmitted. Is chronic depression spread through contact with bodily fluids? Are gregarious and cheerful people somehow immune? Could sociopaths literally turn into zombies at any time? I don’t get the logic here, but I’ll get to my nitpicks in greater detail later.
The point being that this isn’t just another zombie film. I know how stale zombie stories have gotten over the past few years, but this film delivers a fresh take on the genre in some bold and creative ways. It also helps that this is one of those films that deftly mixes genres, such that any fans of sci-fi, horror, romance, action, and/or comedy will find something in this film to like. In my opinion, those are the two best reasons to see this film. The third is Nicholas Hoult.
Sharp-eyed romantic comedy fans may recall Hoult acting opposite Hugh Grant as the namesake character in About a Boy. Since then, Hoult showed up a couple years ago as Hank “Beast” McCoy in X-Men: First Class. He’s set to show up in that film’s sequel, as well as Jack the Giant Slayer next month and the fourth Mad Max film coming out next year. The way his career is unfolding, Hoult looks more and more like one of the next big breakout actors. Then again, such momentum can turn to nothing in pretty much no time (just ask Taylor Kitsch).
Getting back to the movie in question, I’ll grant that it doesn’t take Daniel Day-Lewis to do a good job of playing a zombie. All it takes is stumbling around and groaning while keeping a straight face. It’s especially easy with Hollywood-level makeup artists, since the prosthetics do most of the work anyway. As such, it wasn’t Hoult’s skill in emoting that impressed me in this film. No, I was impressed by his voice.
It’s worth remembering that R can only talk with great difficulty, so he never speaks unless he has to. This means that every word out of his mouth is either funny, important to the plot, or both. And brother, Hoult makes every syllable count. Even better, it bears repeating that R’s internal monologue is a highlight of the film, and Hoult’s voice-over is a key reason why. To wit: There is something that’s just adorably funny about an insecure zombie telling himself over and over again, “Don’t act creepy.” His line delivery throughout this film is simply amazing.
Unfortunately, that’s not to say the film is perfect. As much as I enjoyed this film, I do have plenty of nits to pick. For example, the Bonies look plain awful. Their design is pitifully uninspired, the effects on them don’t look the least bit convincing, and I could’ve sworn that some shots of them were reused. Such a damn shame that these creatures aren’t nearly as scary or as interesting as they could’ve been.
(Side note: This film was written and directed by Jonathan Levine, who previously made such quirky and character-driven romantic dramedies as The Wackness and 50/50. Both films were quite devoid of CGI spectacle, and I’m guessing this lack of experience did no favors for the Bonies. That isn’t a knock against Levine, however: 50/50 is still an excellent film.)
Then there’s the matter of the film’s scope. For a post-apocalyptic film about finding a possible cure for a zombie plague, the climax of this film felt way too small. The film takes place entirely in this one city and there’s no mention of what goes on anywhere else in the world. Of course, mass communication has gone extinct and it’s entirely possible that the human survivors shown in this film are the last of their kind, so of course there wouldn’t be any reason to take the story elsewhere. On the other hand, the film should have made a much bigger deal about the possibility that these are the last humans alive. The climax is presented as a bunch of humans vs. a bunch of zombies, but it should have been presented as the last remnants of humanity on the brink of wiping themselves out. Bring some stakes to the proceedings, is what I’m saying.
Still, my biggest nitpicks with this film have to do with the cast. First and foremost is John Malkovich, who was dreadfully miscast as the film’s antagonist. In the hands of another talented actor, the general might have been someone with a degree of pathos — someone we could understand and sympathize with, even if we couldn’t necessarily root for him. Unfortunately, Malkovich isn’t really known for doing nuance. He’s much better known for playing characters who are straight up insane. As a result, Malkovich chews scenery through every moment of his screen time, delivering exactly the kind of boring and two-dimensional asshole that this film didn’t need.
Aside from Hoult and Malkovich, the rest of the cast is merely okay. They’re passable. Dave Franco is stuck in a totally thankless role, but he does an okay job with it. Analeigh Tipton provides some wonderfully detached moments of comic relief, which makes it all the more regrettable that the script so badly underused her. As for Rob Corrdry… eh. I really want to say that he knocked it out of the park (I tend to have inflated expectations where Daily Show alumni are concerned), but Corrdry was just kinda there. His character might have moved the plot along, but Corrdry didn’t do anything particularly funny or memorable with the part. Nothing that any other actor couldn’t have done, anyway.
Last but not least, there’s Teresa Palmer. Much like Corrdry, Palmer was merely adequate. Though she’s definitely more charismatic and talented than Alice Eve or Rosie Huntington-Whitely, I didn’t exactly find myself falling in love with her, either. Even after seeing this film, I don’t think I could pick her out of a lineup if I tried. That’s not to say she isn’t beautiful or that her character isn’t sympathetic, it’s just that Palmer’s work here wasn’t particularly memorable.
The romance arc is a huge part of that, I think. Though Julie and R do share some very cute scenes together, their chemistry felt off somehow. Yes, I know how that sounds with regard to romance between a human and a zombie, but the point stands that the chemistry between these actors was merely adequate. It certainly wasn’t bad — not by a long shot — but the throbbing heart and core of the movie still should’ve been stronger than it was.
Of course, there’s also the matter of R’s reason for falling in love with Julie. Though R did think that she was cute at first sight, he didn’t really start falling for her until he killed Perry and ate his brains. In the process, R absorbed all the memories and emotions that Perry associated with his girlfriend. Though I appreciate the filmmakers’ attempt at speeding up the initial attraction with legitimate cause, this just raises all manner of questions for me. Specifically, there’s the question of how “real” someone’s love can be when it came from someone else’s mind. Is R’s love for Julie uniquely his own, did he only fall in love with her because he took on Perry’s emotions, or is it something in between? Not surprisingly, the film doesn’t even try delving into this psychological territory.
Regarding the film’s homage to “Romeo and Juliet”… well, I don’t even want to dignify it. Those allusions are so inconsequential, baseless, and utterly misguided that they don’t deserve an iota of thought.
As for miscellaneous notes, I was rather fond of all the pop culture references in this film. A certain Lucio Fulci film gets a neat little shout-out, and the movie’s soundtrack was loaded with great classic hits. And then, for whatever reason, the film threw in “Midnight City” by M83. Hell if I know why. Still, the score and the music were quite enjoyable throughout.
When I think of films to compare with Warm Bodies, my first choice isn’t Twilight, but Daybreakers. Both films took very novel approaches toward tired cinematic monsters, and both worked surprisingly well within multiple genres of film. They’re both very enjoyable movies, though not nearly as good as they might have been. And just like Daybreakers, I expect that this film won’t get anywhere near its due in terms of box office dollars or popularity.
I can gladly give Warm Bodies a recommendation, though the praise might have been more enthusiastic if the film had a stronger cast. Even so, the film is still easily worth a watch, especially in this quality-starved season.