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Guest Movie Review: Warm Bodies

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In 2011, Hollywood’s most acclaimed new actors were newcomers Jessica Chastain and Michael Fassbender. In 2012, it was Chastain and Joseph Gordon-Levitt who wowed audiences seemingly without end. This year, the likely pairing of actress and actor to take viewers by storm ought to be Chastain (what can I say? She’s got staying power) and Nicholas Hoult. That’s right, Planet Earth: the little kid from 2002’s About a Boy is finally breaking out as an adult after almost a decade of playing secondary roles and child characters. His first starring role this year is in Warm Bodies, directed by Jonathan Levine and based on the teen novel by Isaac Marion.

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A cross between Zombieland and a romantic comedy, Warm Bodies takes place in the near future where a zombie apocalypse has wiped out most of the human population and propped up shambling corpses in their place. One of the undead is different from the others however: he remembers a little of his past – at least, he thinks his first name begins with R. Played by Hoult, R attempts to hang onto his thin shred of humanity by collecting records and other knickknacks, storing them in his private home aboard a grounded airplane. Resigned to his undead existence, he shambles between moments, occasionally taking the time to chew on the brains of the still-living. That changes one day when he meets Julie (Teresa Palmer), a lovely young woman scavenging for supplies. After eating her boyfriend, R falls in love with Julie, and soon the pair discovers that his feelings for her are starting to change him back into a human. The rest of the story follows their unusual love story as both zombies and humans struggle to reconcile the budding romance between R and Julie that goes against everything they’ve understood for as long as many of them can remember.

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Naturally, as a movie watcher you’ll have to let go of a lot of your preconceptions of zombie flicks if you’re going to enjoy Warm Bodies. You’ll have to accept the idea that the undead are not merely unthinking monsters but thoughtful creatures ruled instead by ferocious instinct. You’ll have to accept that they can grunt the occasional word when necessary, can operate simple doors and even complex machinery when called upon, and of course that they can be cured by feelings of love. And that a BMW can not only run after eight years of inactivity, but purr like a kitten.

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But while Levine presents you with a scenario that diverges greatly from the likes of Night of the Living Dead, the director does an excellent job of establishing his universe and keeping the unique concept fresh. One of the reasons it works so well is that he allows Hoult to carry the tale. Relying on voice-over narration can be a death knell, especially when the characters cannot communicate to the audience without it. But in giving inner voice to his plight, Hoult immediately makes us both understand and like R. It doesn’t hurt that he gets great dialogue from Levine, who also penned the screenplay, as many of his lines would be automatically hilarious no matter the voice. But Hoult is simply great, from his zombie shuffling and physical acting to the way he follows Julie like a puppy dog from scene to scene. Especially impressive is the fact that he’s subtly changing his performance the longer the story goes, gradually becoming more articulate and physically adept. The voice-over work is also fun in that it’s the perfect example of a boy thinking about trying to say the right thing while spewing out barely-intelligible sentences.

The rest of the cast does an admirable job, despite being overshadowed by the super-talented Hoult. Palmer hasn’t done much since stealing the show in 2011’s I am Number Four (which was another attempt to hop on the teen-fiction-movie bandwagon), and here she once again commands more than a few scenes, most notably thanks to her not playing a passive, stupid character. Julie is one tough young lady, and while she occasionally need R for help (it wouldn’t be much of a romance if they didn’t rely on one another once or twice), we see that she can handle most situations by herself. Palmer proves just as resourceful as her character, playing up the emotional difficulty of the role without resorting to the “wooden face” that some actresses have employed in similar circumstances (*cough* Twilight *cough*). The rest of the cast is a talented batch with the likes of John Malkovich, Analeigh Tipton, Dave Franco and the scene-stealing Rob Corddry, who plays R’s best friend M and whose performance rivals Hoult’s for getting the biggest laughs from the audience. It’s actors like these who make a movie like this worth watching.

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It’s not perfect, of course; supernatural romances are nothing new, and the origin of the zombie/human connection here is merely a reflection on the existing vampire/human cliché with which we’re already intimately familiar. It’s not much of a stretch to say that zombies were the next inevitable stage of this brand of story. Levine also might not have been the best choice to direct, as the movie sometimes plays it safe and doesn’t quite live up to the potential of its concept. But the director does enjoy and excel at the more offbeat moments, and obviously takes great pleasure in provoking an audience reaction. And as his last movie, 50/50, proved, he has the ability to draw on his viewers emotionally, though the effect in Warm Bodies isn’t quite as strong. Still, Levine does a great job of keeping you interested in what’s happening on the screen, which helps alleviate the tedium of some of his more well-trodden ideas.

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Teen supernatural romance movies have fallen into two major categories so far: the execrable Twilight titles and the various Twilight clones and wannabes. While you might be tempted to shove Warm Bodies into that second category, the combined forces of Levine, Hoult, a strong cast and a rocking soundtrack (that includes contributions from Feist, Guns ‘N Roses, Chad Valley and The National) allow it to stand on its own and make you believe that there can be creative life after un-death. This is the first movie that can be enjoyed by both romantic connoisseurs and zombie fanatics, bridging a gap between two fandoms that many thought would be impassible. Quirky, hilarious and a ton of fun, this was the perfect vehicle to showcase Hoult as a future Hollywood star. Sure, it’s not Shakespeare (despite the fun with “R” and “Julie”), but in this day and age it doesn’t have to be. Warm Bodies earns its spot as my current #2 film of 2013 with ease, trailing only Jessica Chastain’s Mama. Hoult and Chastain are the stars of the future, and today we can enjoy both of them on the big screen in a single afternoon.

John C. Anderson is a freelance writer and movie enthusiast living in Boston. He posts most of his reviews at Hello, Mr. Anderson. You know, just in case you’re interested.

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