Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Microreview [film]: Warm Bodies, directed by Jonathan Levine

Ignore the stupid tag line!

The Meat

Following—or rather, shuffling awkwardly and groaning—in the wake of the recent rash of "__(insert supernatural being here)___falls in love with human girl and rediscovers humanity" movies comes Warm Bodies, a zombie-on-human love story.  As a scarred veteran of such supernatural pseudo-romances as Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, you can imagine that my expectations weren't exactly high for Warm Bodies. I even spent a little time before I watched this film envisioning all the ways this concept could be done poorly: a love triangle, for example (I was even mentally prepared to hum "It's All Been Done" by They Might Be Giants if such a situation developed). And I imagined that the whole zombie thing was a potential problem: there are a whole host of movies and TV programs "about zombies" in which the actual zombies are weirdly incidental (e.g., The Walking Dead) or simply a metaphor (Night of the Living Dead—although in this case the metaphor was brilliant and film was too!).  The real question which had me excited (Mystery Science Theater 3000 style) going into Warm Bodies was 'into which pitfall would this movie fall?'

It hasn't won everyone over: Canadian horror movie fans lash out in righteous fury!
 Sure enough, the zombies were a mere metaphor for postmodern humanity, soulless drones who have collectively lost the ability to form genuine connections with other people.  And when one phrases it like that, it probably sounds pretty lame.  But let me assure you, it's not.  In fact, to put it in the plainest language possible: Warm Bodies is awesome.  I haven't been this moved by a story of this nature since the delightful Pleasantville, to which it is really quite similar (it's not giving much away, I trust, to say that 'love conquers all').  Actually, I'd say it's superior to Pleasantville in sheer entertainment value: visually it's just as beautiful in its use of lighting and manipulation of color as Pleasantville, and it's very well paced, so despite the shuffling, snail-like pace of the zombies it never even begins to drag.
The one area where Pleasantville is superior, in the sense of being more courageous as a film, is its rather political message, which means it risked alienating some potential viewers (and to clarify, films can and should make these courageous—or even outrageous—choices, since TV sure as hell won't!). Depending on one's socio-political orientation Pleasantville could be either a beautiful, life-affirming pat on the back or a shocking denunciation of cherished traditions like male chauvinism and (loveless) marriage.  I'll let you guess which of these options it was to me.

If only we could go back to the good old days where life was colorless and dull!

 In any case, the message of Warm Bodies is 'safer' in that it's really all about romantic love, and thereby dodges potentially controversial interpretations as to the metaphoric cause of the zombie plague. For example, perhaps it was blind devotion to profit-seeking capitalism that turns people into zombies, or slavish devotion to science at the expense of spiritual concerns, or perhaps it's the debilitating effect ultra-modern technologies like smart phones have on our ability to communicate face-to-face with others, or perhaps something else—we'll never know, because this film doesn't have a social agenda. It's just a witty, very entertaining, 'let's fall in love' movie, a category which I'll admit I quite like despite finding nothing challenging or productively unsettling about such films, unlike, say, the recently reviewed Upstream Color, which was a brilliant, unrelenting onslaught of loosely strung together unsettling moments.

 The greatest strengths of Warm Bodies are undoubtedly the snappy interior monologues from, and endearing performance by, the extremely well-cast Nicholas Hoult (you might know him as the Beast, pre-transformation, in X-Men: First Class) and the clever homage to the basic story-line of Romeo and Juliet.  If you'd asked me a few days ago if the world needed another adaptation of the Romeo and Juliet story, my answer would've been an emphatic 'no'...but Warm Bodies won me over despite my initial skepticism. The courtship scenes between R and Julie (see where I'm getting the Romeo and Juliet vibe?) are nothing short of hilarious thanks to R's incessant internal comments worrying that he's coming off as creepy and his struggles to articulate his thoughts when in the presence of an attractive stranger—an experience virtually all young men and women can probably relate to all too well.

In short, Warm Bodies may not be the best film I've ever seen, but it's got lots of heart and plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, so it's better than the vast majority. And in the sub-genre of "zombie remakes of Shakespeare" it's safe to say it stands unrivaled!

The Math

Baseline assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for a great script and a wonderful performance by Nicholas Hoult, +1 for selling me on the Zombie Romeo idea despite my better judgment

Penalties: -1 for leaving the cause of zombie-ism unexplained, thereby carefully avoiding any potential controversy, -1 for casting the annoying Franco brother (not James, the other one) BUT +1 for what happens to him being almost as cool as that memorable scene when Samuel L. Jackson got sharked mid-speech in the otherwise forgettable Deep Blue Sea!

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10   "Well worth your time and attention"

[Note that getting an 8/10 at Nerds of a Feather is like getting an 11/10 most other places!]