Title: Warm Bodies
Director: Jonathan Levine
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Rob Corddry, Analeigh Tipton, John Malkovich, Dave Franco, Cory Hardrict
A funky and fresh tale of adolescent self-doubt and blossoming young love funneled through the prism of post-apocalyptic zombiedom, “Warm Bodies” conjures a lovely, commingled tone of wistfulness and witticism. The best, most unique zombie movie since “Shaun of the Dead,” director Jonathan Levine’s smart adaptation of Isaac Marion’s same-named novel delivers laughs as well as an unlikely, surprisingly affecting coming-of-age tale centered around the curative powers of passion and hope.
Unfolding in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, “Warm Bodies” takes as its narrator R (Nicholas Hoult), a soulful and self-aware zombie who nevertheless can’t remember his name or the specifics of what exactly happened to the world around him, or even really speak. His days are spent mostly trudging aimlessly around an airport, though he shares a few grunts of half-formed thought with his “friend,” fellow zombie M (Rob Corddry). When they cross paths with a band of scavenging survivors, R is so captivated by the fetching Julie (Teresa Palmer) that he instinctively saves her from being eaten.
He does, however, eat the brains of her boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco), which gives R insights into the memories, thoughts and feelings of his victim. Taking Julie back to the abandoned 747 airliner he’s taken as his home and filled with knick-knacks, R nervously starts trying to communicate with her (sample inner monologue: “Dont’ be creepy, don’t be creepy…”), and again saves her when she makes an abortive escape attempt. A small gesture of appreciation on Julie’s part seems to further trigger some sort of awakening in R, and later some other zombies as well. This development stands in stark contrast to the bleak worldview of her militant father (John Malkovich), but things come to a head when a bunch of “boneys” — too-far-gone zombies who’ve eaten all of their own skin off — gather to attack both humans and the regular reanimated corpses.
Its conceit sounds rather outrageous, and it is, but “Warm Bodies” is pitched perfectly, in a manner that invests a certain seriousness in the world it’s presenting. Director Levine (“The Wackness,” “50/50″) has shown a knack especially for sly and effective moodcraft, marrying image to brightly chosen pop songs in a fashion that neither hijacks nor sells short the narrative, and “Warm Bodies” further evidences this. Via R’s narration, Levine’s adaptation of Marion’s novel ports over the bumbling and wry self-loathing that any nominally reflective teenager can identify with, but he also creates a beautifully melancholic backdrop that’s punctured by the contrast of Julie’s beauty and vulnerability. Spanish-born cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe has worked in horror before, in “The Others,” “The Road” and, most recently, the remake of “Fright Night,” and has a smart, evocative sense of framing as well as superb sense of muted atmospheric lighting. Topping it off, Levine furthermore does a great job of blending in the movie’s special effects.
It’s hard to know if ”Warm Bodies” will catch on commercially. Though quite different in tone, it shares the same sort of radical disregard for neat genre parameters as “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” which crapped out at just over $30 million domestically a couple years ago. And while it’s funny and engaging enough to easily cut across gender lines, the movie is clearly being marketed with an eye toward female viewers, and has the fantastical “Beautiful Creatures,” courting a somewhat similar demographic, releasing on its heels next weekend.
Still, ”Warm Bodies” affirms its talented young leads. Palmer’s rangy performance further confirms what her tough-gal turn in “I Am Number Four” did — that she’s a star of the future. Hoult, meanwhile, may or may not be a star (he does have a couple big studio films on tap), but he is terrifically talented. I was a bit lukewarm on his performance in “A Single Man,” but his turn here is whole-hearted and so smartly modulated — carefully revealing new layers and levels of thought and engagement as he becomes more and more human.
Twenty years ago, a warped little movie called “Groundhog Day” released in February — an antidote to the saccharine, a sort of twisted Valentine for the rest of us. An inspired genre mash-up with allegorical underpinnings that’s also just a lot of fun, “Warm Bodies” is different in just about every way, shape and form from that film, except for the two most crucial — heart and brains. It has them both.
Written by: Brent Simon