As far as zombie films go, Jonathan Levine’s Warm Bodies is firmly on the tame end of the spectrum. A soft mix of romance, comedy, and horror, it’s an unremarkable take on the genre that fails to develop its interesting premise into something substantial. In following walking corpse R (Nicholas Hoult) as he makes sense of his improbable feelings for human Julie (Teresa Palmer, resembling a blonde Kristen Stewart in all the wrong ways), the film delivers the occasional chuckle and action thrill, but mostly trudges along like its dead stars.
Set in a post-apocalyptic U.S. in which the surviving humans, led by Julie’s dad, General Grigio (an underutilized John Malkovich), live behind a protective wall in an unnamed city’s center, the film relies on R’s narration to set the scene. Shuffling around a nearby airport, his cheeky opening observations satirize zombie life as not all that different from the gadget-obsessed, poorly communicating society from which his kind rose. As the corpses continue to make slow laps within the terminals, showing minimal regard for one another, sharp social criticism appears to be at the story’s forefront and the promise of where such statements might lead carries with it a palpable excitement.
Though the events that follow amount to one giant rebuttal to this emotionlessness, the action is sloppily carried out and increasingly generic. The first signs of trouble occur when R’s hungry zombie gang crosses paths with Julie and her fellow warriors, a crucial event that transpires before much is known about anyone besides R. With minimal investment in these characters, the audience is expected to accept Julie’s acquiescence to R’s promise of safety while her human peers (including a wasted Analeigh Tipton) survive by poorly hiding within earshot. A lame, underdeveloped excuse to spark the central zombie/human romance, the turning point kicks off a series of similar plot holes and inconsistencies that come to define the gradually lifeless film.
Director of the smart 2011 comedy 50/50, Levine again displays prowess behind the camera and creates a fully realized world, though is far less capable as a screenwriter. His zombies move with inconsistent speeds and are given no purpose for populating the airport, nor much reason for any of their actions. Such motivational gaps may seem out of place in a film about walking corpses, but since Warm Bodies posits itself as a self-conscious, humanistic spin on familiar tropes, more is necessary for its themes to connect. Instead, Levine’s dead are rendered ineffective by their painfully slow speech and (understandably) limited emotional range, a basic weakness that not even R’s regular-speed commentary can rescue. Adding little to the wealth of Romeo & Juliet adaptations, the film eschews its initial smarts for more predictable brains, and may very well inspire some rigor mortis of its own.
Rated PG-13 for zombie violence and some language.
Warm Bodies is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.