Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
February 2013

Warm Bodies

Wherefore art thou, zombie?

Tongue firmly in cheek, 'Warm Bodies' is a charming take on epic romance in the midst of plague

Warm Bodies
Summit Entertainment
Director: Jonathan Levine
Screenplay: Jonathan Levine, based on the novel by Isaac Marion
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Rob Corddry, Analeigh Tipton, Dave Franco and John Malkovich
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 38 minutes
(out of four)

Funny what you can do with a refashioned Romeo & Juliet story when you actually have a sense of humor. Watching Warm Bodies, I couldn't help but think of Twilight - this movie's distant, inbred cousin - which gave us the single most ham-fisted reference to Shakespeare's doomed lovers I've ever seen, all in the service of what may be the most sterile romance I've ever seen.

This film offers the same literary reference - its would-be romantic leads "R" (Nicholas Hoult) and "Julie" (Teresa Palmer) splintered not between warring families, but between the living and the undead - but does so in playful fashion, leveraging it for its pop-culture value as much as anything else. There's nothing wrong with a teen romance depicted in earnest, but a little levity wouldn't hurt, either. More often than not, they're handled with all the nuance of an episode of The Young and the Restless.

That's not a problem in this case, as writer/director Jonathan Levine takes a distinctively tongue-in-cheek approach to the unlikely coupling of his two leads, who Meet Cute against the backdrop of a postapocalyptic zombie wasteland. Levine establishes the tone from the start with the introductory voiceover/internal monologue of R, a teenage zombie who spends his days and nights wandering around an abandoned airport with his fellow undead. He's grown quite introspective about his existence, ruminating on who he might have been before he was infected, or why he and his zombie friends hang around airports and malls.

He has a friend, M (Rob Corddry), and the two often have long, intense conversations that go deep into the night - conversations consisting almost exclusively of grunts and moans, with the occasional word or phrase coughed out.

Occasionally R and M venture out into the city with a group of fellow zombies on expeditions for human flesh, and it is on one such journey that he first locks eyes with Julie. She is one of a group of young volunteers tasked with securing medicine for the surviving humans, who are barricaded behind a massive wall in a community governed by Julie's father, a ruthless military leader played by John Malkovich.

Julie's team is overrun by R's group of zombies, and for a few fleeting moments their eyes meet across the room. And after he has finished killing and eating her unlikable boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco), he rushes to her side, masks her natural human scent with zombie blood, rescues her from the ongoing attack and rushes her off to his "home," an isolated airplane way out on the runway.

He's had the whole plane to himself for some time, and has decorated it with various human artifacts he's collected over the months or years. What's amusing is how the interior of the plane functions essentially like a bedroom would in any other teenage movie - the idiosyncratic sanctuary where the misunderstood 16-year-old can escape and be himself, and show his crush just how cool and interesting he is. The scenes between R and Julie in the plane follow a typical, hipstery pattern - they like the same cool music, she's impressed by his vinyl collection, etc. She slowly warms up to him, realizing she's not merely being held hostage, but protected from the flesh-hungry zombies lurking all around.

The film gets a lot of mileage out of the physical and intellectual awkwardness of being a zombie. R is frustrated by how slowly he moves. He constantly finds himself staring, mouth agape (like zombies do) before reminding himself, "Don't be creepy, don't be creepy." And in some of the funniest moments, he tries to play it cool and pull off a more "human" gesture (i.e. driving with one hand while putting his arm around the passenger seat, or brushing his hair back when he sits down next to Julie) while consequently coming across as even more conspicuous.

A huge amount of credit is owed to Hoult, who pulls off a deceptively difficult role exceptionally well. The way he has to pull off dialogue - for which every word is an unnatural physical strain for R - reminded me of Jeff Bridges' great performance in John Carpenter's Starman. Like Bridges, Hoult takes a role that hamstrings his emotional expressiveness as an actor and works it to his advantage - and his subtle physical comedy helps, too.

Adapting from Isaac Marion's novel of the same name, Levine (50/50, The Wackness) takes on the sardonic, playfully philosophical viewpoint of his main character and uses it to build some charming light satire that, in its playfulness, results in a more effective romance than a more serious approach might have. Not as successful are the action scenes, filmed in the kind of messy, handheld, nonsensical style that Hollywood action movies have unfortunately become known for in recent years. But the movie as a whole - while slight and predictably plotted - remembers to actually have fun with its premise and with its silly teen romance. Warm Bodies understands its material and tailors its aesthetics accordingly. I wish more movies would do the same.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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