Saturday, February 2, 2013

21st Century Survival: Warm Bodies

In Warm Bodies, directed by Jonathan Levine, Romeo and Juliet gets the zombie movie treatment in a gray and desolate, highly detailed post-plague setting. R (for Romeo), played by Nicholas Hoult, is a zombie who feels that he’s changing, getting better (an impossibility in zombie lore) after he falls in love with Julie (Teresa Palmer), an angsty, Kristen Stewart-style love interest whose face has launched R’s metamorphosis. Meanwhile, Julie’s Daddy (John Malkovich), the zombie-hating commander of a survivors’ colony, will never go for this relationship!

Brilliantly, the film plays on its central twist by beginning with a shot following R shuffling through a dilapidated airport amidst the other undead. Immediately, with R’s introspective voiceover, the story is told from the zombie’s point of view, and lots of laughs arise in the deconstruction of standard zombie movie tropes.

But Warm Bodies is not a zombie movie; it’s not even a zombie comedy like Zombieland, and viewers expecting graphic head-shooting violence will be disappointed. First and foremost, this is a love story about the difficulties of human interactions. On another level, we are all zombies wandering dazedly through our daily routine. From the beginning, Warm Bodies adopts the tone of a quirky arthouse indie, with a moody musical score, and becomes a quiet, touching love story about a reclusive outsider learning to communicate his feelings for a beautiful young woman. R’s voiceover refers sardonically to the pre-plague days when people were always so closely connected – and we see a flashback to a crowd of people glued to their cell phones. In those not-so-golden pre-plagues days, R might have been one of those inward, inarticulate tech nerds more comfortable in front of a computer screen than in front of a warm human being. The massive wall that surrounds the survival colony comes to symbolize the barriers barring human interaction, barriers that seem pointedly ironic in this age of connectivity.

Hoult as R does a fine job of showing his gradual emergence from zombiehood to warm, feeling human being. He initially communicates with very expressive grunts, growls, and wide-eyed blank stares. In a touching scene clearly echoing WALL-E, R takes Julie to his solitary quarters inside an abandoned airliner where he shows off all the cherished things he has collected, including pre-digital LP records. R has learned from WALL-E how to show a woman you have heart, and vinyl records are cool. Meanwhile, Palmer fits her character right into all the standard scenarios of the angsty and spoiled but desirable young 21st century female responding to the weird outsider. “Wuzzup?” Palmer imitates Kristen Stewart’s forehead-down scowl to a T.

In a post-apocalyptic setting, there are always opportunities to reference all that is lost – all that we had that may not have been all that great. Julie’s friend Nora (Analeigh Tipton) wishes she could access the Internet in order to figure out what ails her friend. Warm Bodies uses this setting to point out that amidst all the material possessions and the technology, we are not necessarily better off. In the 21st century world – or in the grim wasteland of a zombie plague – the most important thing in life is human warmth.

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