Friday, February 01, 2013

Warm Bodies

WARM BODIES (Jonathan Levine, 2013)

What’s a hunky, sensitive, undead guy like R (Nicholas Hoult) supposed to do after the apocalypse?  It’s been eight years since a plague left many, including him, as shuffling, brain-hungry vessels called corpses.  When he’s not chowing down on some gray matter, R trudges around the airport, shares knowing grunts with his best friend M (Rob Corddry), and kicks back on the plane he’s made home by getting misty listening to records.  (He’s a vinyl aficionado because it delivers better audio reproduction, natch.)

Like his fellow corpses in WARM BODIES, R is unable to recall his pre-zombie life.  He can make an educated guess about who he was based on his clothes and thinks he knows the first letter of his first name but that’s it.  While zombies have no memories of their own, eating brains isn’t just part of a healthy diet.  It also allows them to absorb their victims’ memories.

While hunting for food R and company encounter human survivors who’ve ventured beyond their walled city to scavenge for pharmaceuticals.  R feasts on the brain of Perry (Dave Franco) and the poor guy’s affectionate thoughts for his girlfriend Julie (Teresa Palmer).  This has a strange effect on R.  He develops feelings for the pretty blonde and chooses to whisk her out of the situation’s immediate danger and into safe hiding on his jet.

At first Julie is understandably anxious about the arrangement, but gradually R’s gentlemanly manner puts her at ease.  She can tell that under his cold, dead skin is a warm and generous heart, metaphorically speaking at least.  He is unwavering in protecting her from the corpses and the boneys, the name given to the faster, animalistic undead who have peeled off their skin.  Julie becomes fond of R, but how can she explain this star-crossed romance to her friends or her dad (John Malkovich), who’s leading the uninfected’s fight against their undead predators?
This zombified version of ROMEO AND JULIET ups the stakes in placing the couple between rungs on the food chain rather than feuding families, but it trivializes the love story because R’s devotion is not genuine.  He might as well have sipped a magic potion in secret, except in this case he’s gobbled some choice cerebrum.  R is having a vicarious experience performing the role of adoring boyfriend to an unknowing Julie, opening up WARM BODIES to the potential satire of idealization in relationships or projected familiarity in the communication age.  Instead writer-director Jonathan Levine reduces the allegorical components to their simplest terms and recycles the love-conquers-all motif in a scenario that doesn’t earn the payoff.

Although based on a novel, WARM BODIES feels like the product of a studio executive who thinks Shakespeare’s play is great except it could use a happy ending.  Oh, and zombies are popular at the moment, so might as well add them too.  The reappropriated plot works out an acceptable revised resolution, even if it’s betraying its primary influence.  The genre trappings are en vogue, perhaps cynically so, but using the undead as a prism for viewing tragic romance could have been a valid creative choice if the protagonists’ connection wasn’t forged how it is, especially because brain consumption in zombie lore doesn’t imply or require memory transference.

The lovers’ names, main struggle, and the balcony scene make the overlays with ROMEO AND JULIET unmistakable, but R and Julie get along like Tarzan and Jane as well.  He saves her from the threats in his untamed environment.  She humanizes the savage in place of serving as a civilizing influence on him.  Whether the Edgar Rice Burroughs parallels are intended or not, combining Shakespeare and zombies creates the expectation that the text will be treated with some irreverence, but to a baffling degree WARM BODIES is played mostly straight.  To Hoult and Palmer’s credit, they don’t look ridiculous articulating the earnest romance between the living and undead.  If only the film around them reflected the humor in it.  

Grade: C

1 comment:

  1. I feel you on the over used Romeo & Juliet device, and the fact that you have to wonder if R's love for Julie is genuine or Memorex.

    But when it comes to these types of movies, I ask myself - Did I feel like it was a waste of time and everything fell flat? Or was I engaged and entertained?

    Warm Bodies was the latter for me - Tinsel & Tine