“As a stand-alone film, it works just fine and could become a high school classic the way John Hughes films used to and Twilight ones never deserved to. It uses the teen romance conventions established in the last decade to its advantage and twists the classic monster movie motivations to thrilling effect.”
Warm Bodies, Movie Review
The first thing you’re going to think when you see Jonathan Levin’s adaptation of Issac Marion’s novel Warm Bodies is, “Is this going to be better than Twilight?” Yes, dear reader, it is true. With the recent passing of the much-beloved/maligned Twilight franchise, Summit Entertainment took it upon themselves to quickly create a replacement potential-franchise that is to be released on only two and a half months after the final Twilight movie. That’s quite a turnaround time. Heck, even the book came with Stephanie Meyer’s seal of approval. You think they were thinking about cross-promotional potential? But even without the inevitable Twilight comparisons, Warm Bodies not only redeems the teen cross-species fantasy romance genre that you-know-what has all but, well, buried, but might end up being one of the defining teen romance(and maybe zombie) stories of the decade.
Warm Bodies does not concern vampires, but zombies. Yes, I know, you’re probably thinking that the producers seem to be taking the easy way out, and you would be right. The very conventional story involves R (Nicholas Hoult), a young zombie (which definitely is not short for Romeo) trapped in an airport. Unlike most movie zombies, he is photogenic, personable, and the protagonist. The exposition is told through his voice-over. R sounds sarcastic and self-deprecating. You picture that he may have been a Goth boy who was doing drugs in the airport and got caught. R definitely has charm beneath his ramblings. He hangs out with other zombies in the airport bar, including Rob Corddry as M, a more comedic zombie. It is clear that these zombies are not like other movie zombies in that they still have some memories of their lives and might be into self-improvement. This is shown as R recalls when he was apart of a zombie raid that claimed the life of his romantic interest’s boyfriend, played by James Franco’s brother, Dave. R somehow is able to learn all about this girl, Julie (Teresa Palmer), through absorbing her boyfriend’s memories. This nourishment doesn’t go unnoticed as R suddenly develops serious empathy toward Julie and might end up being the key to his self-discovery (yes, the zombies actually have arcs). It doesn’t take much to let you know that this boy won’t let being dead stop him from communicating his romantic interest. Mr. Hoult’s charismatic performance is a natural pleasure to watch. Unlike Robert Pattinson, he will not have work with David Cronenberg and Werner Herzog to try to convince you that he can actually sort-of act. You can already see that here.
I don’t think I have to tell you what happens after that. Yes, R and Julia meet up. Girl hates boy. Boy shows girl his boss vinyl record collection inside an aircraft where he dwells (as opposed to LIVES) and protects her from harmful zombies. Girl suddenly starts to like boy. Girl runs away. Boy keeps up. Love is found. Of course, this Romeo and Juliet homage wouldn’t be complete without some tension. You see, there is a war going on. Julie’s father (John Malkovich) is the general of the human resistance to zombies. There is a lot of back-story I won’t spoil here, but let’s just say it will make the back-story of Twilight looks like, well, high school in comparison. Even the hollowed-out Montreal backdrop trumps Twilight’s too-pristine Vancouver landscapes for pure character.
Thankfully, Julie is no damsel in distress, at least not the whole time. She emerges as a strong, likable female protagonist in a way that Kristen Stewart never managed to get close to. The chemistry between the leads is magnetic. It is all very Shakespearian in a very unpretentious way. They have a balcony scene that somehow doesn’t feel annoying (we never saw any Twilight tale bother to do that). There’s no Tromeo and Juliet grossness happening here, I assure you. The zombie gore is actually kept to a minimum to not alienate the female Twi-hards, presumably.
Any follower of Twilight probably knows what happens next….or do they? Naturally, there is not just a war between the humans and zombies, but also between good relatively fresh zombies and decayed CGI zombies known as “Bonies,” who have no humanity left in them. The humans are too uninformed to see that there is a difference. Leave it to R to prove them wrong. This is both the strength and weakness of the story as it is original and ripe with story potential, but simultaneously reveals budget limitations with weak CGI that is distracting to the more successful story elements. It makes the CGI creatures in the 2007 I am Legend look Oscar-worthy in comparison. I also didn’t like that the zombies moved a little too fluidly. Maybe I just prefer the old-fashioned slow zombies that the youth today mostly don’t appreciate.
Warm Bodies aspires to no less redefine the zombie genre in an implausible way that rivals the way Twilight redefined vampires. I will not reveal how that is, but let’s just say the aggressive marketing campaign already alludes to it. I was surprised how faithful to the tone of the film the twists come. In most horror films, I would have considered them to be cop outs. Somehow, Mr. Levine uses his experience in making the bleak feel-good (just watch his acclaimed 2011 terminal cancer dramedy, 50/50, and be amazed) to make this film feel authentic and true to the movements of an actual relationship, which even a regular romantic film has trouble getting right. I suppose you could also compare the relationship in Warm Bodies to something like Edward Scissorhands if the Twilight comparisons are getting a bit daft. Of course, the two films couldn’t be more different, but both had misunderstood, non-communicative male lead characters who did everything they could to be with the ones they desired, with society getting in the way. Then again, Wall-E could also be thrown in there in a completely different context, but that is getting in the way of the fun at hand. Monsters aside, it’s all a pretty conventional affair.
I should mention the soundtrack. No Twilight heir could be complete without it. Naturally, the diegetic and non-diegetic music brings these youthful characters to life in a way the Twilight characters couldn’t be bothered with. It includes a very tasteful blend of new and old-school songs by The National, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Radiohead, m83, Feist, and Guns and Roses. There were many more, but I’ll let you discover those for yourself.
In short, I am not sure if Warm Bodies will start a franchise. A sequel to the novel has been announced and I am willing to predict that the film will be an early year hit. The ending is a little too finite and heavy-handed for its own good. As a stand-alone film, it works just fine and could become a high school classic the way John Hughes films used to and Twilight ones never deserved to. It uses the teen romance conventions established in the last decade to its advantage and twists the classic monster movie motivations to thrilling effect. It is not a perfect film since the humor is a little too self-aware and earnest, but in a world where generic zombie films are a dime a dozen on screen and on television, Warm Bodies feels like a real gift from the commercial gods that we did not think we needed and, sometimes, that’s enough until the next young adult monster mash-up franchise rolls into town.
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