Warm Bodies is Jonathan Levine’s follow-up to 2011’s cancer drama/comedy 50/50, and follows a similar bent of finding comedy and romance in misery. The setting for Warm Bodies, in this case, is a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland. Based on a 2010 novel of the same name, the film follows a zombie who goes by ‘R’ as he goes on a journey of love and self-enlightenment. You can tell by that last sentence alone that this film is playing by slightly different rules when it comes to the walking dead. This is made clear immediately, as the film opens with R’s inner monologue, as he comments on the state of the world and the other zombies around him. The opening monologue quickly and efficiently establishes both the state of the world and its three sections of society. The humans have been confined to refugee camps behind high-walled sections of some nondescript city (the location is never discussed, though the film was shot in and around Montreal), with the surrounding areas left to the zombies like R (who seem to be the most numerous beings in the area) and their devolved skeletal cousins, nicknamed “Bonies” by the zombies and “Skeletons” by the humans, the thoughtless and raging ids of the universe. It’s a simple conceit made complicated by this new wrinkle that the zombies (or R at least; it is never made clear whether the remaining zombie population is also capable of extensive thought and inner monologue the way R is) are sentient to the point of being able to interact, vaguely speak to each other and have some sense of intelligence, no matter how dimmed by the fact that they’re, you know, dead.
The action picks up when R (played by Nicholas Hoult, of About a Boy, the UK “Skins” and X-Men: First Class fame) and best friend M (Rob Corddry) come across a band of young human refugees led by Julia (our young heroine, played by Teresa Palmer of, well, nothing remarkable), Nora (Analeigh Tipton, Crazy Stupid Love) and Perry (Dave Franco, of looking uncannily like his brother James, and also 21 Jump Street). R attacks and kills Perry (he is a zombie after all), which leads to another interesting twist on the zombie genre that becomes a major plot point. In this universe, zombies are primarily interested in eating human flesh, and the brain essentially represents a delicacy. When a zombie eats someone’s brains, he gets a flash of the deceased’s memories. It is not until this moment that R notices Julia, and decides to save her life. It could be out of pity. It could be out of love. It could be out of lust. But for whatever reason, R chooses to save Julia, setting off a series of events that see R slowly evolve into something not quite human, but certainly more alive than dead.
On a surface level, there is a slightness to Warm Bodies. It is not the sort of film that relies on stakes to move its plot. There are stakes, of course, as there are in any film, but the focus here is on the relationship between R and Julia, and how their movements and interactions appear to affect the fate of both the zombies and the human race. This is key, because Warm Bodies is, at its heart, a spin on Romeo and Juliet. There is a scene that makes this blatant (a little too blatant, really) deep in the film, but other than that moment, we are generally not beaten about our heads with the reference. Various misconceptions follow, mostly surrounding Julia’s father (John Malkovich) and his distrust of the zombies (Corpses to the humans) due to his personal past. It’s pretty much by-the-numbers plotting, so the story relies on its quirky look at the zombie genre to stay fresh.
For the most part, this works. The clear delineation between R’s sardonic inner monologue compared to his physical inability to speak beyond groans for much of the first half of the film is entertaining to watch, and while the film never goes into the back story of R and why he’s capable of this level of cognition despite his zombification, that information is generally irrelevant to the task at hand of telling this story in a breezy 100 minutes. Indeed, it is entirely possible that all other zombies have the same sort of trapped consciousness as R (as all of the zombie scenes are shot and narrated from his perspective), and are going through the same struggles. The film is at its most interesting when considering these possibilities, as well as the central question of whether R would have had feelings for Julia at all had he not eaten her boyfriend’s brains. The acting is solid, with Hoult and Corddry leading the charge. I was not particularly familiar with Teresa Palmer before the film, and she does an excellent job selling the concept of slowly falling for a zombie without things getting too Twilight-y. Her performance is nuanced in a way that is key to making the concept work. Malkovich, to be fair, is phoning things in a little, but his character is designed to be the sort of emotionless authority figure who exists only to get in the way of things.
Warm Bodies is the perfect sort of film to be released in the January/February doldrums. It doesn’t ask much of the viewer, is less than two hours (which is a godsend after a season of 150+ minute monsters like Zero Dark Thirty, Django and The Hobbit; even This is 40 was over two hours long), and provides a ton of entertainment for its value. Part of me wishes Jonathan Levine had done a little more with the material, as there isn’t as much emotional weight to this film compared to the excellent 50/50, and while it doesn’t have the ambition or the quality of films from last year’s doldrums like The Grey or Chronicle, it’s a more than acceptable way to kick off the 2013 film season.