What am I doing with my life? I’m so pale. I should get out more. I should eat better. My posture is terrible. I should stand up straighter. People would respect me more if I stood up straighter. What’s wrong with me? I just want to connect. Why can’t I connect with people? Oh, right, it’s because I’m dead. I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. I mean, we’re all dead. This girl is dead, that guy is dead. That guy in the corner is definitely dead. Jesus, these guys look awful.
Bittersweet, original and very, very intelligent, Warm Bodies is a not-quite paranormal teen romance for the thinking person. Based on Isaac Marion’s novel of the same name (which has incidentally earned a place at the top of my ‘must read’ list), it’s a cross between a sweeping post-apocalyptic drama and an indie film of the ‘experience everything, love everyone’ persuasion; featuring all the desperation and existentialist angst of the former, as well as the inherent belief in the goodness of humanity that characterises the latter.
After the zombie apocalypse, survivors barricade themselves into a small safe zone surrounded by ‘The Wall,’ where they are able to peter out a militaristic and semi-primitive existence. Children grow into teenagers that carry guns everywhere they go, reject hope and become accustomed to seeing people die on a regular basis. In the miles of empty streets and buildings surrounding The Wall, zombies roam in packs, on the lookout for fresh brains, which usually come in the form of parties of armed volunteers foraging for food or medicine.
It’s in a dilapidated airport where many zombies go to embrace the spirit of Waiting for Godot that we meet our protagonist R (Nicholas Hoult), an idealistic zombie who can barely remember who he is, but who clings desperately to what it felt like to be human. Though he is a zombie in externals, R has a vivid, emotional and quirky inner life that manifests itself in long, revealing inner monologues and is probably best expressed in his love of vinyl records, which he hoards eagerly and listens to nostalgically; the records becoming the voice that he no longer possesses. His longing for the most basic human connection is exemplified by his relationship with his best friend M (Rob Corddry), with whom he occasionally has grunting matches that he pretends are conversations, and with whom he also goes hunting for brains in the vicinity of The Wall.
It is while R and company are ambushing and eating a group of heavily-armed teenagers foraging for medicine that a young girl named Julie (Teresa Palmer) leaps out from behind a medicine cabinet firing a shotgun, her hair flying in slow motion, her eyes shining with the thrill of the kill, and R falls immediately and spectacularly in love, rescuing her from being eaten and keeping her safe within the confines of the jumbo jet that he has made his home. Despite a rocky start, the two manage to connect on the most basic human level over the following days, Julie learning that ‘“corpse” is just a word we invented for a state of being that we don’t understand,’; R discovering that love can literally bring the dead back to life.
The film features an extraordinary performance by Nicholas Hoult, who plays the zombie and human aspects of R’s personality up against each other with great pathos and poignant comedy; his gait, strength and desire for brains spectacular tributes to classical zombie cinema; the moving and sometimes tragic way that his humanity comes bursting through his zombie nature smashing stereotypes to pieces in the most poignant way. His mastery of facial expression enables us to know precisely what R, who can barely speak, is thinking, and works together with his dramatic monologues to create a performance that is exquisite both from a physical and from a psychological aspect.
Teresa Palmer’s Julie is definitely not cut from the same cloth as the boring, breathtakingly beautiful and devastatingly shallow action movie Barbie dolls who make you think that the weight of the gun in their hands is going to make them topple over at any second. She’s one of the most promising heroines to come out of American cinema in years. Older than her years, she displays the brute survival and emotional numbness of a very young person who has grown up witnessing horrible things on a daily basis and who has a kind of kinship with the weapons she uses that one normally only sees in the more feminist heroines of the fantasy genre. My only complaint is that she sometimes gives the impression of being related to Kristen Stewart, which makes one wonder how she will fare in a different sort of role. John Malkovitch lends a superb charisma to the supporting role of General Grigio, Julie’s father and the leader of the military government, and reinforces the largely youthful energy at the film’s heart with a heady dose of gravity and hard experience.
Another exceptional thing about the film is how it uses the concept of being a zombie, or ‘being dead’, to transmit a message about people who don’t fit into society; people who, like R, have an extraordinary character and inner life, and so much to give, but whose awkwardness and ‘differentness’ are so intense that these characteristics evolve into a state of being that does not allow them to do so. The dead do walk among us, waiting to find or to be given the strength to come back to life again. The fact that this is accomplished through love makes the film gorgeously heart-warming without being overly sentimental, a considerable relief for cinema goers who dislike having to bring paper bags with them to the movies in case they need to throw up.
Obstinately refusing to confine itself to a single genre, a sure sign of a good film, Warm Bodies combines brilliant acting with a highly intelligent story, and makes you want to watch it again and again.