Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Warm Bodies (2013) – Review

Review: Warm Bodies is a fun mix of genres with a surprisingly fluid (yet subtle) message. The film is about two young people (star-crossed lovers, if you will) who happen to be from different sides of a giant wall. The zombie-apocalypse has happened, and the surviving humans have built a massive wall protecting them from the zombie masses that surround them, but they still need to scavenge outside their protective enclosure for supplies from time to time. During one such supply run, Julie and a group of her friends are attacked by a zombie horde, but one of the zombies, R, has an unexpected reaction upon seeing Julie. R finds his life as a zombie to be unfulfilling. He is bored and craves connection. When he sees Julie, something changes within him and he decides to protect her and not eat her. He takes her back to his home, and the two of them form an unlikely bond that could save humanity. Just a warning: this review does contain some plot spoilers, so seeing the film first would probably be wise before reading the full review.

It would be easy to dismiss Warm Bodies for many reasons based on its premise – like: it is just another zombie movie trying to exploit the current fad (headlined by the AMC series The Walking Dead) and a Twilight copycat supernatural genre teenage romance aimed at drama-caving young women. However, writer-director Jonathan Levine’s film (based on Isaac Marion’s novel) is so much more. Yes, it is a zombie movie and yes it does center around two young characters, one a zombie and one a human girl, who develop a relationship, but Levine also addresses social issues, fleshes out great characters, and infuses the film with very funny material. And, best of all for genre fans, it is a good zombie movie too.

Visually, the film has a very typical post-apocalyptic look – things are in shambles, civilization has collapsed and retreated into an entrenched area, and dangerous creatures roam the wasteland. Plus, the action beats are done very well, fitting what one might expect in a zombie movie. However, Levine quickly makes it apparent that this is not a typical zombie film, as it opens with voice-over narration from R. He explains the mundane life that he has as a zombie and his inner aspirations. What works well about this is that Levine has established R as a character the audience can relate to – how different is R’s life to the banality of the typical day-to-day life of the viewer (aside from being a zombie) and all R wants is to not be alone, which is what we all want really. Outwardly, R cannot really communicate, so the use of voice-over allows him to stay in character while still enabling the audience to get to know him. This is the first major difference between most zombie movies and Warm Bodies. Here, the zombie is the main character and not just the monster (and they are still the monster too, as they do attack and kill humans). The audience actually gets to take a stake in their story.

Levine likes to switch gears and genres with the film. It starts out like a typical zombie movie (with a twist, as R, a zombie, is the main character and the audience hears his inner thoughts), but after R and his fellow zombies attack and kill most of Julie’s friends (R eats her boyfriend) he takes Julie back to his home and the film shifts to more of a romantic comedy. Julie does not know what to make of R. She does not really like him at first (because she is terrified of him), but as she gets to know him she sees there is something different about him. R, on the other hand, is trying his hardest to impress Julie, as he has fallen for her almost immediately (a common troupe of young love in movies – the main character having a crush on a seemingly unattainable girl or boy, and over time they come around). R acts chivalrously towards Julie, trying to both keep her safe and to evoke some affection. They share some pleasant times and Julie does form an affinity for R, but this relationship only exists in isolation. Her group would not approve and likely would shoot R in the head, and his group would not approve and likely eat Julie’s brains.

While it is certainly not new territory to have characters from two opposing sides form a bond, Levine does it in a manner that still feels fresh, while referencing Romeo and Juliet (of course) and making a social statement as well. Shakespeare’s play is probably the most famous to feature star-crossed lovers, and Levine pays tribute (along with Marion, the novel’s author). First, and maybe the most obvious, are the main characters’ names: R and Julie for Romeo and Juliet. Second, there are visual and narrative references as well – most notably there is a scene in which Julie is on the balcony outside her room and R has snuck into the human compound to find her and calls to her from below the balcony. This is maybe the most iconic of the Romeo and Juliet imagery.

Levine seems to also be very interested in delivering a social message with the film about love being the answer to problems and not fighting or war. It is the love and understanding between R and Julie that unites the humans and zombies, rather than one making the other subservient or eradicating them. Once Julie gets to see the zombies interacting with each other, she realizes that they are misunderstood and not so much different than humans. One of the final images in the film sees the massive wall that separates the humans from the zombies being destroyed, which invites memories of seeing the Berlin wall come down. Again, Levine is promoting love, understanding, and togetherness rather than hate and fear. What is great about Warm Bodies is that Levine never forces feeds or is heavy-handed with this social message. It seems to organically come out of the narrative (a sign of good direction).

The film also has a lot of great comedy. The interaction between R and Julie plays very much like the normal interaction between an awkward boy who is interested in a girl. It is resonates with the audience because they can relate. But, it also has an additional comedic undercurrent due to the sheer ridiculousness of the situation: a zombie making googly-eyes at a young woman and trying to get her to like him.

Unlike Romeo and Juliet, however, Warm Bodies is not a tragedy. In fact, its resolution is a very neat and tidy happy ending. (Personally, I thought) it works well, but maybe it is too wrapped up in a bow for some – especially those looking for a zombie movie, because ultimately this is not a zombie movie, it just operates under the guise as one, it is a romance. The resolution seems too easy. Would zombies and humans suddenly be friends? Well, there are a few factors to consider. First, they worked together to defeat a common enemy in the Bonies (super zombies that want to kill both the humans and zombies, once they become more human-like). Second, R and Julie’s connection ignited something in the zombies that made them become more human, even restarting their hearts. And third, there is no timeframe between the events of R and Julie starting a revolution of sorts and the tearing down of the wall signifying zombie and human co-habitation. Really, the specifics of how exactly they live together do not matter, as the message of the film is what is important. We can assume that they worked something out.

The film also embraces many of the clichés of the romance genre. And therefore, yes, the film does feature many of the same clichés, but Levine has turned them on their head, so to speak, by staging his romance in a world ravaged by the zombie apocalypse. Also, a lot of the humor comes from seeing these cliché romantic moments played between a zombie and a human girl. The film does not shy away from the clichés. It draws attention to them and revels in them.

Warm Bodies is not just a zombie movie or just a romance or just an action adventure. It blends all three creating a very fun and entertaining experience, and one that actually aspires to uplift through its positive social message of love. It is the first great film of 2013.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Jonathan Levine has now made four films, though his last two saw bigger commercial releases. 50/50 and Warm Bodies have both been very good films, blending genres and delivering great stories with wonderfully relatable characters and meaning. He is definitely a filmmaker on the rise and one to watch.

Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders give the film a score that equally matches its genre blending aspects. However, it is the soundtrack that really shines, as it features both great music and songs that poke fun at and play with the zombie and romance movie features (stuff like: John Waite’s Missing You, Bruce Springsteen’s Hungry Heat, and Bob Dylan’s Shelter from the Storm). Levine uses music cues fantastically throughout the film as well. Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography is brilliant. He creates varying looks for the film depending on whether something is taking place pre, during, or post the zombie apocalypse. During has a very bleak color saturated look, while before (seen through memories) and after are much brighter, angelically lit, and filled with color. Martin Whist’s production design is equally great. R’s home inside the main cabin of an airplane, filled with knickknacks, is full of character. The dilapidated and decrepit city (in the wake of the zombie apocalypse) feels just as authentic as any zombie movie.

The film is comprised mainly of only a few main roles, and the cast is great across the board in them. John Malkovich plays Julie’s father, who also happens to be the leader of the humans (because if she is Juliet, then her father must be the patriarch of the Capulets). While he does not have much screen time, he is able to create the sense of a menacing and vindictive father that would never trust in a zombie. Analeigh Tipton is fun in support as Julie’s friend Nora. She is kind of goofy and sweet, but kind of badass too (she reminds me of the girls in Red Dawn a little). Rob Corddry is brilliant as R’s friend M. He has perfect comedic timing and brings heart and emotional depth to his role as well (something that is very important in aligning the audience with the plight of the zombies). Tipton and Corddry bring so much more to their roles than the typical throwaway one-dimensional best friends to the leads parts that the romance genre usually churns out. Teresa Palmer’s Julie is fairly complex for a teenage romance film. She is dealing intense emotions with the loss of her mom (turned by zombies and then shot in the head by her father), a distant father who is driven by hate, a boyfriend who is pulling away, and of course the zombie apocalypse, and yet she wants to be in love, have fun, and just be young but does not really have that luxury. This is why her mini-vacation away from her life with R (once she got over her somewhat debilitating fear) affects her so much and why she forms such a strong bond with him, because he enables her to feel those things. Palmer is able to covey all these emotions drawing the audience into the narrative and love story, as she must carry most the scenes with R merely reacting to her (due to the nature of his character). It is by far her best work to date. Nicholas Hoult has a very difficult role as R. He has to be a zombie, yet be a character the audience can relate to and care about. The voice-over narration helps, however Hoult is able to do enough with his face to sell his inner emotions. It is easy to overlook the performance, but it is great work.

Summary & score: Warm Bodies is both an exciting zombie movie and a funny and charming romance. It even has genuine and positive social message. It does all this while feeling fresh and original. 7/10

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