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Warm Bodies Review: This Tainted Love You've Given

By TK | Film Reviews | February 1, 2013 | Comments ()


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There are some who say that the zombie genre has burnt itself out, with too many iterations, too much of the same, over and over again. Much like vampires, it feels like there is only so much Hollywood can do -- and so much that we, as viewers, can bear -- before the genre begins to (natch) eat itself and cease to maintain any kind of effectiveness. Once that happens, we're stuck with milquetoast variations, teeth-grindingly painful takes on the genre that inevitably will reduce it to getting the Twilight treatment. Zombies are no longer a part of the underground, no more the genre of midnight horror marathons where we winnow away our hours debating the worthiness of Savini's Night of the Living Dead remake, or the sad state of Romero's Dead series, or the merits of Fulci's works. They're mainstream as hell, with a TV show and everything, and there's pretty much no tale left to tell.

Enter Jonathan Levine's Warm Bodies. Based on the debut novel by Isaac Marion and directed by Levine (The Wackness, 50/50), Warm Bodies feels at first glance like the zombie version of Twilight, if such an abomination were possible. It stars Nicholas Hoult (X-Men: First Class, "Skins") as, well, a zombie. After an unspecified holocaust reduces the majority of the world to ravenous, roaming undead, Hoult's character is the one somewhat self-aware zombie. Though he's still a shambling, groaning husk, there's a quiet, wistful voice in his head (represented by a charmingly self-effacing voiceover narration) that tells him that he used to be something more, that there is more out there than this dull, flesh-devouring grind of wandering through the airport in a listless hunger.

Enter Julie (Teresa Palmer), one of the remaining survivors living in a walled-off enclave/stronghold in the heart of the city. She and a team of others are sent on a mission to forage for supplies when they are overrun by a swarm of undead, one of which is Hoult's character. Despite killing and devouring the brain of her boyfriend, he still makes the curious split-second decision to not only spare her, but to save her as well. From there, the film wanders through a strange, burgeoning relationship between Julie and her lurching savior as she slowly warms (heh) to him, while he also slowly begins to feel less, well, dead.

That's the central conceit of the film, in essence -- that the undead can possibly be rendered back to life through warmth and affection and yes, possibly even love. It's an odd new take on the genre, and for the most part Warm Bodies works, delightfully so. The main source of joy in the film comes from Hoult, dubbed simply "R" by Julie. Hoult gives a performance that is at once charming and subdued, clever without feeling glib, and gives the viewer the curiously genuine interest in rooting for the undead. His performance is a tricky one -- a dryly humorous voice over provides the majority of his more overt character development, as he narrates his fascination with the living, and Julie specifically. Meanwhile, his physical performance is equally intriguing. As R evolves, if that's the right word, his physicality is slowly changed as well. While he's clearly separated from the other zombies by a notable alertness and liveliness in his eyes, he's still a grayed-out, stumbling mess, covered in wounds and lacking basic coordination. As he begins to re-learn his lost humanity, he gradually begins to regain some of the more basic functions, moving towards increased physical, mental, and emotional complexity. Hoult manages to convey a sweet, warm performance that's equal parts charming befuddlement and terrible frustration, peppered with a wan loneliness and fear of returning to what he was -- because what he was was never a life worth living.

This element of change and transition is echoed by the film's simple-yet-lovely cinematography -- the film's color palate is an intense, shifting visual array that emphasizes the dull tones of undead life contrasted with some startlingly bright scenery, providing a nice little metaphorical juxtaposition that avoids being too overt. The film itself seems to slowly brighten alongside R's journey, a sensible notion given that it's told through his perspective.

Palmer, as the plucky, sharp-witted Julie, does a decent enough job. Teresa Palmer is a bit of an odd woman out in Hollywood, a generically pretty actress with startling, deep-set eyes that enable her to demonstrate an equally startling range of emotion. Yet she rarely gets parts of much worth, despite some demonstrable ability. She's quite good here, though doesn't quite match Hoult's intensity. Refreshingly, Marion's novel and Levine's screenplay gives the character some depth and intelligence, steering widely away from the dreaded Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and instead providing a character who's stronger than one would expect. And yes, she is eventually saved by R, but it's a necessary plot device to introduce us to his strange, sad little world, and it's a favor she returns in kind. Truth be told, it's R's movie anyway -- the zombie apocalypse survivors have been done a thousand times over at this point, but Palmer still gives a solid performance as a survivor who slowly adapts to the possibility that there may actually be cause for hope amid the carnage.

There's a smattering of subplot surrounding this oddball, mostly chaste romance. Julie also must clash with her father (John Malkovich), the militant hardcase leader of the survivors and the overbearing Capulet of the picture. It's a relationship that unfortunately bumbles its way into conventional tropes, particularly towards the end when he begins to make obstinately stupid decisions based on his own prejudices in an attempt to reinforce the already-obvious Romeo And Juliet theme. It's ham-fisted, manufactured drama, and while the resulting action is intense and quite enjoyable, the road taken to get there smacks of a slightly frustrating laziness. There's also the question of the Bonies, skeletal wraiths who are the final stage of zombification, quick and terrible ravenous creatures that stalk living and undead alike. The supporting cast is small, but solid, including Analeigh Tipton as Nora, Julie's chirpy confidant, and Rob Corddry as a mostly mute zombie friend of R's who becomes drawn to the same possibility reawakening. Corddry is wonderful in just about everything, and here he manages to be both sincere and hilarious despite speaking perhaps a couple dozen words at most.

The film begins to fold in on itself towards the end, lobbing metaphors at you like grenades in wholly unnecessary fashion. It's plain to see that it's a film about change and love and all those adorable things, and it manages to mostly deliver that message with a goofy, self-aware sweetness that makes it easy to see that this came from the man who gave us the wonderful 50/50. But while that film allowed its thematic elements to unfold organically, Warm Bodies occasionally takes a blunt force approach that is at times aggravatingly on-the-nose. Yet that shouldn't be cause to avoid the film, because overall it's an absorbing bit of romantic candy that still manages to avoid being too precious or treacly. That's due to some mostly solid writing (although from my understanding it veers away from the novel in many ways) and wonderful directing, and a pair of strong performances from the leads who seem to fall easily into their very peculiar roles. In the end, Warm Bodies is a mildly flawed film, but there's enough charm and excitement and yes, even a healthy dose of action and gore thrown in for good measure to make a genuinely unique vision, proving that yes, there is indeed love after the zombie apocalypse.

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