When it was first announced that 50/50 director Jonathan Levine would helm an adaptation of the novel Warm Bodies many film-fans dismissed the project as Twilight with zombies. Still, anyone familiar with Isaac Marion’s book of the same name knows that the Warm Bodies story and tone could make for a fun (albeit campy) film – playing on traditional “undead” tropes. Unlike similar offerings that are targeted at love-struck teenagers and twenty-somethings, this movie is well-aware of its goofiness and instead of melodramatic romance, Warm Bodies actually uses that absurdity to tackle a larger topic: the power of living.
Does Levine’s focus, and lack of shirtless heartthrobs, land the film in an awkward middle ground? Where it’s too-lighthearted to please zombie movie lovers and without enough romance to draw-in viewers hoping for the next great supernatural power couple?
Unfortunately, yes but in this case that’s a good thing. Given Levine’s resume (which also includes 2008 favorite, The Wackness), it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Warm Bodies is actually a solid film – held back primarily by overarching consumer backlash against paranormal romance and zombies in Hollywood. On its own terms, Warm Bodies offers a funny and witty twist on living dead mythology without getting too bogged down in drawn-out, and self-indulgent, romance story lines. Some of the film’s larger ideas rely heavily on character cliches and setups that don’t have enough time to develop but Levine moves the proceedings at a steady pace and adds enough charming moments to keep the film alive (even if the romance is just undead).
Warm Bodies centers around living corpse “R” (Nicholas Hoult), who no longer remembers his name or any other details from his “life.” Instead, he shambles around post-apocalyptic America ruminating on the state of his non-life, feeding on flesh, and grunting with his best undead friend “M” (Rob Corddry) at the airport bar. However, when R and his fellow zombies eat a group of still-human scavengers, he becomes captivated by one of the young survivors, Julie (Teresa Palmer). In an effort to save Julie from his zombie brethren, not to mention the terrifying “bonies” (zombies who have given up their humanity entirely), R helps his new-found crush escape and brings her to a secluded area of his home for refuge (in an abandoned airliner). To keep her safe and, selfishly, get to know her better, R hides Julie from the zombies and the bonies for days – supplying her with food and entertainment. Initially repulsed by the situation, Julie begins to trust and care for her protector – causing subtle changes in R and large ramifications for zombies and humans alike.
The setup of the film is absolutely thin – as is the “romance” between R and Julie. There’s no doubt that zombie purists will not approve of convenient changes to undead mythology, viewers will role their eyes at cheesy lines of dialogue, while others will have trouble suspending disbelief in a few underdeveloped character interactions. Yet, moviegoers who can accept the core premise and look past on-the-nose story beats will find that Warm Bodies is actually pretty entertaining and even heart-warming at times. It’s not a particularly smart love story but it makes intelligent use of genuinely likable characters and an endearing plot setup.
Nicholas Hoult literally shambles a fine line as R – in a performance that could have easily strayed into Razzie Award territory. Instead, the actor brings a lot of life to R without stepping too far in the other direction. After all, R is undead, his movements and ability to communicate stunted, but Hoult finds a way to successfully keep R on the same level as Julie – making it all the more believable that a human girl considers this corpse preferable to certain living people she also knows. At times, Hoult’s zombie mannerisms may come across a bit forced but, overall, his memorable moments outnumber (and outweigh) the awkward ones.
Similarly, Rob Corddry is a scene-stealer as best friend M – easily one of the most charming characters in the entire film. While Hoult is responsible for carrying the primary storyline to a satisfying conclusion, Corddry’s contributions are both humorous and heartening – with several crowd-pleasing one-liners. The film would not be nearly as successful without Corddry and, much like Hoult, the character is surprisingly impactful for someone that spends the majority of his onscreen time shambling around – communicating in grunts and stilted one-word responses.
Sadly, the “living” characters are much less captivating than their undead counterparts. Despite a competent performance from Palmer, Julie is mostly just a MacGuffin to push R outside of his comfort zone. Aside from a few exceptions, the character’s actions and feelings are designed to drive the plot, not add sensible or meaningful drama in the moment. As a result, the depiction is a major factor in the movie’s biggest misstep – a forced and underwhelming “romance” plot. On occasion, Julie does add meaningful elements to key commentaries that run through Warm Bodies - specifically complacency in both the corpse and human societies as well as a foggy definition of what it means to be “alive.”
Other human players, Perry (Dave Franco), Nora (Analeigh Tipton), and Julie’s father, General Grigio (John Malkovich), are resigned to familiar but narrow tropes. The characters are necessary for the overall “message” of the movie but, on their own, don’t carry significant weight or memorable payoff.
Ultimately, the success of Warm Bodies is heavily dependent on its attempts to twist and subvert zombie movie staples – meaning that moviegoers who are expecting explosive corpse slaying set pieces and gory carnage will absolutely be underwhelmed. The creepy “bonies” elevate tension in key scenes but, much like the human characters, they’re nondescript pawns with no function outside of the fundamental storyline. Instead, willing audiences will get a weird, but admittedly fun, character story. A story that includes glimpses of surprisingly smart social satire.
Not everyone will respond to the quirky plot but certain viewers are likely to enjoy Levine’s unapologetic attempts to make good on the bizarre setup. Zombie purists will have trouble overlooking alterations to undead genre conventions and supernatural romance enthusiasts may find the love story in Warm Bodies to be dead on arrival. However, open-minded movie-lovers with a diverse taste in brains movies may find a worthwhile experience in Levine’s blend of oddball moments, tongue-in-cheek humor, as well as a healthy dose of heart.
Ben Kendrick blogs at Screen Rant.