Warm Bodies starts like a parody of a teen-angst flick. Nicholas Hoult plays a pale, blank-eyed, vinyl-collecting young man who slouches through his day, asking in voiceover, “Why can’t I connect with anyone? Oh, yeah,” he observes, “it’s because I’m dead.”
Our hero, R, is a zombie, and not just metaphorically. Unable to remember the rest of his name, R shambles through a postapocalyptic urbanscape (obviously Montréal), occasionally stopping to groan at his best friend (Rob Corddry) or to reminisce about the days when people breathed and looked each other in the eye.
As R envisions a pre-zombified world where people “connected,” director Jonathan Levine (50/50, The Wackness), who adapted Isaac Marion’s novel to the screen, inserts a shot of a present-day crowd with every pair of eyes glued to a smartphone.
That juxtaposition is probably the satirical high point of Warm Bodies, which starts bold and finishes timid and tepid, unable to do justice to its conceit. Because, you see, Marion’s novel isn’t just a zombie coming-of-age story: It’s a zombie version of Romeo and Juliet.
R falls in love with Julie (Teresa Palmer), a surviving human, after he eats her boyfriend’s brain and absorbs his memories. He becomes her protector, and Julie less plausibly reciprocates his feelings, precipitating changes in R’s cold, undead nature. That’s right: Love makes zombies’ hearts beat. In montages set to ’80s pop songs, R rediscovers his humanity.
Warm Bodies is no Twilight: For one thing, even though he acts mainly with his unblinking eyes, one shoulder and the occasional grunted phrase, Hoult is far more expressive than Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen. It’s a minimalist comic star turn from the actor who made his name on the British dramedy “Skins,” with a touch of genuine pathos.
For another thing, R doesn’t virtuously abstain from human flesh, like those sparkly vampires; he chows down until Julie’s love redeems him. Here’s the problem, though: Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy. There is no possible happy ending to the story of a girl who loves the boy who killed her kinsman — or ate her boyfriend — and no amount of fuzzy, love-conquers-all mysticism can change that.
Warm Bodies does have actual villains: the “bonies,” zombies who’ve abandoned their humanity to become pure killing machines (and bad CGI). Equally opposed to young love is Julie’s dad (John Malkovich), the quasi-fascist leader of the human settlement. But really, can you blame him?
Levine gives Warm Bodies a hazy, indie-style wistfulness that makes the story’s more ridiculous aspects easier to swallow; in his rendering, zombieism is just another quirk that makes it harder to relate to people.
But a metaphorical conceit can only be stretched so far. This one snaps with a bang when Julie too quickly forgives R for his big transgression, rendering her character — who seemed likably grounded up to this point — shallow and unbelievable. Yes, her boyfriend (Dave Franco) had a death wish. No, zombies can’t help wanting to eat people. Yes, R wants to change, and his goth look is fetching. But the movie transforms from a smart little comedy to another eye-rolling teen romance when the pair’s love becomes a force that can change the world.
By the time the film wobbles to a close, satire has been abandoned, and Levine seems to have given up on creating anything but an Instagram-twee zombie Valentine. That’s too bad, because, had the romance been as messy and conflicted as the blood bath where the lovers met, Warm Bodies could have been more than just another dead high concept walking.