We've seen it before: a lonesome teenager dwelling on his inability to connect with others loving his dream girl from afar. It's indie romance 101. But in Warm Bodies writer/director Jonathan Levine finds a genre twist that livens up the conventions. His lead R (Nicholas Hoult) is a zombie who spends his days roaming the post-apocalyptic world with little "human" interaction.
With only grunts and stiff gestures at his disposal R is limited to an inner monologue that relentlessly laments his situation — what might be lazy filmmaking in a naval-gazing drama is Levine's greatest asset. Riffing on the undead tropes allows Warm Bodies to tell a story that sports a beating heart and a sizable serving of braaaaaaains.
In adapting Isaac Marion's novel Levine wastes little time with exposition for why the world is in a state of zombie apocalypse. It just is and it's not all that enjoyable for either the flesh eaters or the human resistance.
When R and a pack of zombies stumble upon human scavengers they immediately jump into action — taking a few bullets to the chest in hopes of scarfing down organs. But as R tastes the juicy goodness of Dave Franco's brains his whole word is changed by the sight of Julie (Teresa Palmer). For the undead twentysomething it's love at first sight.
R protects Julie from his fellow zombies taking her home to his abandoned airplane pad to prove he's more than just a hungry emotionless monster. Her acceptance gets R's heart beating again. Quite literally.
Like his previous work The Wackness and 50/50 Levine dilutes any semblance of saccharine connection with humor and tension.
Hoult finds a groove playing a dead man with life behind his eyes lumbering about with mouth agape and teasing the slightest hint of personality.
The exterior is enhanced by the actor's animated observational voice over. The zombies of Warm Bodies never dream and barely think — thanks to his inquisitive nature (and the brains of his victims which give him memories of their past) R's mind is always wandering. When he devours chunks of Julie's boyfriend's cerebrum he feels joy and guilt.
There is a larger world surrounding Warm Bodies but the movie always sticks with the personal relationship — even when Julie and R are being chased by bloodthirsty "Bonies " the an even further gone class of zombies.
Palmer turns Julie into more than just an object of affection warm when empathizing with R and physically capable in the movie's few action moments. John Malkovich appears as Julie's militaristic father bent on wiping out the zombies from existence while Rob Corddry plays R's best friend… or just a guy who responds to R's grunting. Turns out zombies make great deadpan comedians.
Small and sweet Warm Bodies' high concept works better than any trailer could sell.
Levine never misses an opportunity to throw in a joke capture a romantic moment between his two leads or explore the moment with a perfectly timed music cue (like 50/50 the director's ear is as impressive as his eye). Only when the movie loses itself to wrapping up with a bang (a spectacle it may not have had the budget to pull off) does it put the emotional beats on hold and meander in genre filmmaking.
But the pause isn't for long. With so many romantic comedies overwhelmed by their own devices Warm Bodies successfully unearths the "human" in budding relationships — and does it with the not-quite-human.