By: Daniel Reynolds
It has been said that every story has already been told. If you are feeling particularly cynical, you could say that every story winnows down to “someone wants something” or “a stranger comes to town”. Despite the fertile premise, with Warm Bodies, these notions are never far from our minds. Our hero, known as R, wants something (i.e. love and human connection) and he is the strangest guy in a pretty strange land. How strange? He is, at least initially, the only zombie that wishes to rise above his station. He wants not just more out of life, he wants life. Period.
Now, many of you were lost at the word ‘zombie’. While we can acknowledge the long arching trend of repetitive story motifs, there is a struggle when those motifs become short running trends that threaten to consume the mainstream of popular culture. Zombies, despite lurking in the dark corners of pop history since the 1950s, are slowly making their play for cultural supremacy.
But enough with the zombie pontificating, let’s talk about the actual film. Warm Bodies was written and directed by Jonathan Levine (based on the novel by Isaac Marion) and it continues his run of casually well-made movies (50/50, The Wackness, etc). For an apocalypse movie, Warm Bodies looks convincing, with its desolate airport (a great way to introduce a bunch of shuffling, diverse characters), wrecked streets, and walled in city of survivors (admittedly, we see less of this place than we probably should). No explanation is given regarding how the world got this way, or how John Malkovich (playing General Grigio) became its military ruler. Sadly, this lack of explanation extends to the rules of the film itself. We meet R (played by the doe-eyed Nicholas Hoult) who introduces himself with some breezy voice over narration. He is dead, he knows this, but for whatever reason, he wants more. The film goes to great lengths to show how R is different; he shuffles off to be by himself, he listens to records (including the brilliantly employed Hungry Heart), and he attempts, with great futility, to converse with his pal, M (played by Rob Corddry, who desperately needs to be given bigger roles). This idea feels fresh, even amidst the zombie craze of the day, and the unshakable sense of narrative familiarity that slowly blooms in our minds.
For any zombie movie though, the focus can never remain resolutely on the undead, it has got to move to its human counterpoint. To that end, we are introduced to a crushingly good-looking group of zombie hunting youth led be the dreamy pair of Julie and Perry (Teresa Palmer, a welcome presence, and Dave Franco, stuck playing smarmy and arrogant for life). We also learn that Grigio (Malkovich) is Julie’s father, and probably a bit of a totalitarian nutbar, though that probably comes with the territory of controlling a walled in post-Armageddon fort. The youths go out to look for supplies, and in an inspired meet cute (seriously, it is the best), Julie and R get caught up trying to kill and eat each other. The heart is strong, but the flesh is delicious. After some time (to its detriment, this film is in no rush), we start to feel the pulse of the story. R is falling in love with Julie, his heart is aflutter, and a new life seems to be around the corner. It may take some time, but at around the time when R shows up underneath Julie’s window in a brash, heartfelt gesture of love, you may even start to connect the Shakespearean dots, too.
To Levine’s credit, he understands what he has with the material. It is an opportunity to work over not only some familiar genre touchstones, but infuse them with some classical romanticism and a killer soundtrack. While the film’s universe could maybe do with some more details, it’s fair to be locked into the head of R as he tries to remember who and what he is. The film’s primary problem, ironically enough, is pace. For a movie about so many matters of life and death, the plot unfortunately lurches to and fro, introducing suspense only to table it for later, and managing to make a horrific world ruled by the undead feel mostly safe (well, unless those zombie skeletons are around). The escalating action of the film’s final third starts to feel very obligatory as it lurches into motion.
Still though, the film has its charms. Levine wisely plays the coming-to-life story of R as a sly coming-of-age burgeoning romance, with all its tell-tale bits of awkwardness. We laugh as R stares and mumbles at Julie, appreciating that he can at least blame his lack of social skills on the lack of pumping blood. Are touches like that enough? Well, as Warm Bodies ambles to its conclusion, with all the elements we would expect in place (the warring tribes, the star-crossed lovers, etc), it depends on how new is new. These days zombies (and vampires, but let’s not get started on that) are being used as a salve to coat the chewed over remains of the familiar. Warm Bodies has its stranger in town who wants something, but still, it is commendable that that something becomes more than just brains.