‘Warm Bodies’ Fails to Dethaw
We are currently at the trailing edge of a geek-fueled cultural zeitgeist, all surrounding that shuffling, groaning creature with an affinity for gourmet gray matter: the zombie. The Walking Dead swarm our TV screens, “official” survival guides crowd our bookshelves, and a reference to the undead is rarely more than a click away from any page on the web. It seemed that it was only a matter of time before we would reach that cultural tipping point and collectively move on to the newest flavor of the week, leaving the skulking undead eating only our dust.
I was well past that point by the time I saw the first trailer for Warm Bodies. I let out an audible sigh at my first sight of the pale, bedraggled hero as he sulked through an airport surrounded by his fellow deceased. But despite my own boredom with the well-worn zombie genre, there was a kernel of a good idea there — something that, if explored effectively, could elevate zombies out of the realm of the trite.
The central question was, what if zombies, underneath their pasty, blank faces, were really just lost souls trying to make sense of it all? Not so unlike you and I, really.
It was a question that promised a deconstruction of the genre; a re-examination of the zombie as a creature of our collective nightmares. And in the hands of a competent director like Jonathan Levine (50/50, The Wackness), whose previous work packed both emotion and pathos, there was potential for something special.
The particular zombie in question, a young man known only as “R” played by Nicholas Hoult, is in a slump you might say. Well, he’s dead. But that doesn’t stop him from pondering his existence as one of the walking dead, which the film uses as an analogue for the aimlessnessness of modern existence. “Why am I here?” “Where am I going?” he asks us through voiceover, though his pale face reveals nothing of the self-examination taking place within. He is a prisoner trapped in his own body, with no memory of the past, and no direction toward the future.
But that’s as far as the movie takes it. After the voiceover drops off and the clunky gears of the plot start turning, it becomes painfully obvious why zombies don’t usually take on the role of a protagonist; they are simply not interesting to watch on screen — that is, unless they’re ripping the viscera from a screaming victim’s chest cavity. Nicholas Hoult does a decent job in the lead role, conveying a remarkable amount using only his eyes. But that can only carry the movie so far, as whatever personality his character may have is trapped inside a dead exterior.
The slack is left to be picked up by Teresa Palmer, who plays young “R”s immediately forgettable love interest, Julie. There is nothing about her tepid character that would conceivably get young R’s rotten heart a-beating, aside from the fact that she looks like an eery genetic recombination of Kristen Stewart and Hayden Panettiere. Though she may have warmed the heart of an aimless zombie, their lack of chemistry fails to transfer any of that warmth to the audience.
After R and Julie’s initial meeting and the ensuing awkwardness of him essentially holding her hostage in the airplane that he calls home, the plot quickly devolves. The second half is taken up by a clunky, uninteresting romance plucked straight from the pages of Shakespeare and thoroughly de-boned.
Julie must convince her militaristic father, played by a ham-fisted John Malkovich, that zombies aren’t really the enemy. No, the real enemy are the “boneys,” which are actually… well they’re zombies too. But they’re different. Get it? And the skeletons are going after R and Julie because, why not? They need something to move the plot forward. They also need something to run away from in the third act.
All of these creaky plot devices could conceivably be forgiven, however, if there was compelling theme at the center; a beating heart somewhere inside the film’s cold, dead exterior. But thanks to a dearth of convincing performances and an offhand abandonment of the movie’s most intriguing ideas, Warm Bodies will inevitably leave you cold.