Posted on Friday, February 1st, 2013 by Angie Han
It’s no coincidence that the official website for author Isaac Marion includes glowing blurbs from both Stephenie Meyer and Simon Pegg. Marion’s novel Warm Bodies, and Jonathan Levine‘s film adaptation of same, owes as much to Twilight as it does Shaun of the Dead. It attempts to infuse some self-aware humor into a tale of star-crossed inter-species romance. Ultimately, however, the combination turns out to be less than the sum of its parts.
The obvious question of how to make a decaying zombie seem datable is answered easily in the first few minutes: Cast an appealing, male model-handsome actor like Nicholas Hoult, dust some grey makeup on him, and then give him a well-crafted voiceover that offers insight into the thoughtful soul lurking within. The premise of a zombie movie told from the perspective of a zombie — a witty and amiable on, no less — is a fresh one. In the opening monologue, wherein Hoult’s character R introduces us to his world, it works like gangbusters.
All fictional monsters represent ordinary human concerns, and the undead here are obviously a literal interpretation living people who’ve forgotten how to connect with each other. In case that’s not immediately clear, Levine juxtaposes a shot of an airport pre-apocalypse, with lively beings avoiding eye contact in order to fiddle with their smartphones, with a shot of the same scene post-apocalypse, in which zombies shuffle aimlessly past each other. It’s not subtle or new, but it is funny and effective.
R’s dreary existence changes, however, the day he meets the very human Julie (Teresa Palmer). He falls for her at first sight, even as he’s hungrily chowing down on her boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco). In an effort to save her from his undead compatriots, and perhaps steal a bit of alone time with her, he brings Julie back to hide out in the abandoned airplane he calls home. As she slowly warms to him over the next few days, the connection between them sparks something in the zombie, and R finds himself and his undead pals inching closer back to life.
How this works is not clear, especially as Julie may as well be dead for all the life Levine’s script and Palmer’s performance give her. Aside from a few generic cool-girl traits (she just adores R’s vinyl collection), she has no personality whatsoever. Worse still, her chemistry with Hoult is only passable at best. Their purportedly epic romance never feels like much more than a passing crush. Given that Levine never even attempts to offer any other explanation for the earth-shattering changes their love brings about, this is a major sticking point.
Not that Warm Bodies is without its pleasures. Levine is at his best in the film’s small moments, and he mines a lot of humor from the little ways that zombies are, and aren’t, like us. R’s use of pop music to convey the emotions his words can’t should resonate with anyone who’s ever made a mixtape or Spotify playlist for a crush, while images of zombies trying and failing to play catch or open umbrellas prove to be simple but amusing gags. As R and Julie’s respective funny best friends, Rob Corddry and Analeigh Tipton get only a few lines, but manage to steal every scene they’re in.
And it’s not just the comedy. Levine also acquits himself nicely with some of the more profound emotional moments. In a perfectly morbid touch, R occasionally snacks on the remains of Perry’s brain in order to experience the dead boy’s memories. That allows Warm Bodies to sketch out the familiar zombie apocalypse in broad but powerful strokes, as Perry grows from a sweet kid to a hardened young adult, and it’s the closest the film comes to being truly moving.
Clever moments don’t add up to a whole movie, though, and Levine struggles to make the larger story work. Pacing proves an insurmountable challenge, as Warm Bodies burns through plot points before they have time to build any friction. R goes from struggling to croak out single words to speaking sentences in the blink of an eye, and the speedy development of R and Julie’s relationship seems downright weird considering that he was munching on her last boyfriend not days before. Meanwhile, obstacles like Julie’s corpse-hating dad (John Malkovich, phoning it in) and a contingent of extra-evil zombies (called Boneys) fall away with so little resistance that I wondered why they were introduced at all.
Still, the biggest problem remains the lukewarm central pairing. As with most romcoms, I could overlook almost any number of flaws if only the central pairing felt worth rooting for. R and Julie don’t. With a few inspired jokes and some lovable side characters, Warm Bodies isn’t really an unpleasant affair. A moviegoer could certainly do much worse in the doldrums of winter. But its mild presence is hardly enough to rouse a tired moviegoer, let alone, as the film would have it, the whole dead world.
/Film rating: 5.5 out of 10.0