Credit where credit is due, “Warm Bodies” does at the very least bring a zombie to the big screen that we’ve never seen before: one seemingly caught in the grip of an existential crisis. When we first meet the undead R (Nicholas Hoult) he’s literally and figuratively shuffling through life. His decayed state has also robbed him of his memory (he can’t remember his name, hence the initial), he’s not quite sure when his zombie life began and his “hoodie would suggest I was unemployed.” This is part of the pleasingly sardonic opening to the movie (you can watch the first four minutes right here), but unfortunately, it’s a tone that eventually evaporates from “Warm Bodies” in favor of something far more conventional.
Adapted from the novel by Isaac Marion by writer/director Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness,” “50/50”) the picture released by Summit Entertainment — the folks behind the “Twilight” franchise — seems to be aiming for a similar demographic. The PG-13 movie is less for genre fans than it is for tweens looking for another supernatural romance that pits two improbably paired and good looking leads against a system that wants to tear them apart (albeit with far more knowing self-awareness). Will love triumph in the end? You probably already know the answer.
“Warm Bodies” takes place in a not too distant future where humans have walled themselves in against a vaguely described apocalypse that has left citizens of much of the world, or at least the immediate metropolis (a not-at-all disguised Montreal), either as zombies or “bonies,” skeletal CGI super-zombies that are basically a more ruthless and less discerning version of your average brain eater. As R says, his hunger forces him to eat human flesh, but at least he’s “conflicted about it.”
The meet-cute between R and Julie (Teresa Palmer), the object of his affection, is at once both inventive and illogical. She’s the daughter of Grigio (an autopilot John Malkovich), who is leading the resistance, and she’s part of the armed units that head out into the territory beyond the wall for supplies. While in the midst of gathering medical provisions, zombies pick up on the group's scent from the street, and come barreling in for the attack. R is among them, and while he makes quick work of Julie’s boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco), he’s also so immediately struck by her beauty, that he whisks Julie away back to the airport where the zombies live. Wait…what?
Playing with genre is fine, but if you’re going to create new rules, you have to play by them too, but unfortunately “Warm Bodies” continually subverts its own internal logic and basic, believable character motivation to keep pushing the movie along. At one moment, we’re supposed to believe that R and walks Julie back to the airport to keep her safe, even though they’re surrounded by zombies and bonies, who seem to momentarily lose their ability pick up on humans in the their midst (pretending to be a zombie also seems to work). And while that initial journey doesn’t seem to take all that long (one quick cut and we're there), later when R and Julie vacate the airport, it’s suddenly so far from everything, that not only do they need a car, but R and Julie stop in a suburb to rest…only to then spend a few moments taking Polaroids of each other. Yes, the movie is a bit all over the place at times, with the urgency of the plotting coming and going at will.
Even their relationship in general never quite sells how quickly they mutually fall for each other. You might think that R killing Perry, and feasting on his brains (which conveniently allows him to see the ex-boyfriend’s memories of Julie) might be a dealbreaker, but it’s casually, unconvincingly sidestepped. And though the opening third of the movie is essentially one long date sequence with R keeping Julie holed up in his home — which is an airplane (though why he gets an entire plane to himself while everyone else lives…somewhere…isn’t explained) — she vacillates between demanding to go home and hanging out listening to his vinyl record collection (“Better….sound…” he grunts) with little rhyme or reason between the two. And when Julie suddenly ups and bolts one night, it’s jarring simply because a moment earlier she was snugly, warmly and comfortably sleeping.
As the movie changes gears from zombie date movie to action flick in the second half, it seems something is making the zombies more human, and if you’ve seen any of the trailers or posters, you know what it is, and it’s exactly as cornball as it sounds. And this is perhaps the biggest failing of “Warm Bodies,” that a movie that flirts so often with lovingly mocking the conventions of both zombie and date movies, eventually falls back on a resolution that is thuddingly cliché, ordinary and slightly ridiculous. Remember those Polaroids? It only takes about five minutes before R is heartrendingly staring at Julie in the photographs, in another instance where she ups and leaves quite suddenly.
There is a much more interesting movie on the fringes of this material. As R slowly regains his human feeling and emotions, there’s a moment when he’s walking through the rain and is surprised and pleased to feel that it’s cold. “Warm Bodies” shorthands or completely avoids much of this rediscovery of feeling, which is a shame, because it’s both funny and fascinating, and certainly would’ve added dimension to everything going on between R and Julie. Hoult and Palmer do what they can, and do bring more to R and Julie than what's on the page, while Rob Corddry and Analeigh Tipton — as best friends M and Nora respectively — at times outshine the leads. But “Warm Bodies” never truly commits to the wit and reinvention it promises. The picture leans on a iPod ready playlist of songs — to help connect the feeling of exile and heartache shared between our zombie lead and teenagers everywhere — and episodic, rom-com moments to try and bring this undead story life, when a bit more brains might have helped. [C]