The zombie apocalypse teen romance Warm Bodies has a couple of things going for it: It’s unlike any other zombie movie in recent memory, and the lead character is soulful, clever, and cute. Even as a zombie.
Like with many post-apocalyptic stories, we don’t know why things are the way they are (some mystery virus, presumably), but the dead have risen to eat the living. Slacker hipster R. (Nicholas Hoult), as he’s known, has taken refuge in an abandoned airport along with the other undead, but there’s still a spark of life in him (for one thing, he’s "conflicted" about eating people). He can’t remember his name, just his first initial, and can’t remember who he was. But he seeks connection.
The problem is the other zombies are mindless, and, conflicted or not, they feed on humans.
When R. falls for a living girl, Julie (Teresa Palmer), however, he curbs his appetite long enough to forge a bond, and thus begins what could be called "Romeo & Juliet & Zombies" as it attempts to answer the age-old question: Can you make peace with people who want to eat you?
Based on the novel by Isaac Marion (which began as a seven-page short story called "I Am a Zombie Filled with Love"!), the film takes a seemingly unique viewpoint: that of the undead rather than the dead. And poignantly, as the zombies are unable to recall their past lives, they are able to find some solace in the memories of their victims-which they process when eating their brains. This being a PG-13 teen romance (for the most part), this isn’t a gore fest. It’s more sweet than scary.
Director Jonathan Levine ("50/50," "The Wackness") is deft with the comedic aspects of the story, though the dramatic aspects end up paling in comparison. When Julie loses her boyfriend early on, she doesn’t mourn him. Not even for a second. Sure, she’s fighting for her life on a daily basis, but there is plenty of time for her to feel SOMETHING. And it’s never clear why she goes off with a zombie (as cute as he is) when he’s just killed her boyfriend. Wouldn’t any sensible girl run? Even a teenage girl in the throes of hormones?
The Australia-born Palmer ("I Am Number Four," "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice") is spunky, but, as in her other films, is also largely forgettable. Gorgeous Hoult (of the BBC’s "Skins," "X-Men: First Class," and "A Single Man," as Colin Firth’s flirty student), however, imbues R. with an awkward earnestness, a "humanity," you might say. He’s soulful even when he only grunts. And some of his observations are both clever and laugh-out-loud amusing.
Yet while R. is an engaging, amusing protagonist, the story flails both by the pedestrian retelling of "Romeo and Juliet." John Malkovich as Julie’s militant leader father is mostly wasted, though he throws himself into the role with verve; and the dissolution of the B story of the Boneys, zombies who are too far gone for there to be any hope of rehabilitation. The Boneys look like stop-motion effects circa 1981. That might have worked in the original "Clash of the Titans," but with the technological advances of the past 30 years, effects this cheap looking are laughable at best. And once the romance is wrapped up, the Boneys’ storyline is concluded in a matter of seconds. They don’t seem to have ever had a point other than to chase our heroes from one set piece to the next. Unfortunately, social commentary, the hallmark of zombie movies (aside from the flesh eating, of course), is largely missing, though at one point R. does read an "Us Weekly" story on Kim Kardashian, clearly intimating the mindlessness of humanity doesn’t end when we die.
"Warm Bodies" is cheeky, sometimes smart, often fun, but it never really plays beyond the tween audience it’s meant for, which is unfortunate, because there’s a lot of unplumbed promise in the premise.