To have heart is a description that has ironically become more and more artificial as time wears on, a code word for movies that might not be as bad as they look from the trailer because you might actually relate to the characters. However, Jonathan Levine has proved himself to be a true expert in cardiac specialist, able to treat the stories of those uncomfortable in their own skin whether because of growing pains (“The Wackness”) or illness (“50/50”) with uncommon grace, eventually delivering a gut punch when the credits begin to roll and you realize you still want to continue following them.
No wonder then he was drawn to adapting Isaac Marion’s novel “Warm Bodies,” in which he quite literally has to flesh out his main protagonist, a young man who goes by “R” (Nicholas Hoult) since he lost his memory and other key human traits in a zombie apocalypse. Naturally, R doesn’t trudge in lockstep with previous screen incarnations of the walking dead, though he moves slowly and takes even longer to grumble incoherently. Yet in a nod to Marion’s first-person led prose, we’re privy to R’s inner monologue, a conceit with the potential to upset zombie purists since zombies have long feasted on brains rather than employ them to think.
That’s not to say “Warm Bodies” deprives R of the occasional snack, but even then it offers food for thought. When R eats someone, he inherits their memories, something that comes in handy when he falls in love at first sight with Julie, a human survivor (Theresa Palmer), and devours her boyfriend in self-defense. She has no choice but to follow him if she wants to stay alive, but in having feelings for her, R is shocked to feel his pulse quicken – or to have any pulse at all, a discovery that could have far larger implications for his undead brethren.
Eventually, the course is set for a large-scale zombie-human standoff since in the film’s most indelicate turn Julie’s father (John Malkovich, at his most perfunctory) happens to be the leader of the resistance movement, yet the film’s budget constraints and quite possibly Levine’s inexperience with major set-pieces limit the grandiosity of the climax the story build towards. But “Warm Bodies” succeeds where it counts most, creating a touching romance between R and Julie as innocent and gently subversive as the cherished Universal classics of the 1930s such as “King Kong” and “Frankenstein” while bringing fresh ideas to the genre.
Marion’s original text can be credited with the foundation for many of the innovations, but Levine makes it sturdy, once again assembling a fine, largely unexpected cast — Analeigh Tipton and Rob Corddry are perfect complements to Palmer and Hoult, respectively — and a soundtrack that maximizes the emotional touchstone potential of its contemporary melancholy finds and ‘80s classics (with the help of music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas). He also consistently finds ways to enliven the film’s intentionally drab palette with sweetly acidic-tinged flashbacks and keep the tone light on the treacherous journey from the airport where R lives to the city in ruins where Julie hails from. And though “Warm Bodies” posits an equally long trek to become human, it’s never that far in the eyes of Levine, who gives the film enough heart to match its bite.
“Warm Bodies” opens wide on February 1st.