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Overlord - Movie Review

Overlord
Overlord

With D-Day fast approaching, a small slice of the 101st Airborne Division drops behind enemy lines in occupied France to take out a German communications stronghold so that the Normandy invasion can have uninterrupted air support. The drop doesn't go well, however, and it's up to the five surviving men to infiltrate a well-fortified church and plant explosives around a radio tower. Little do they know, however, that their almost suicidal mission is even more difficult than it sounds, as the church is also home to a grisly Nazi experiment in breeding super soldiers from the bodies of the dead.

Gamers and B-movie fans know combining Nazis and zombies is far from a groundbreaking concept, but Overlord isn't remarkable for its originality. Rather, the latest genre experiment from J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot Productions is remarkable because it's done with both a higher budget and an astonishing amount of skill. Sure, it's as schlocky as it sounds--Saving Private Ryan meets Resident Evil--but both sides of the concoction are handled surprisingly well, resulting in a film that could have been a decent war film in its own right or a gory horror piece that would definitely surpass Paul W. S. Anderson's cheesy video game adaptations. On top of that, the combination is seamless, and if you sign on for the ride knowing where it's going, I can't imagine you'd be disappointed.

A lot rests on a cast and crew of relative unknowns. Overlord is directed by Australian screenwriter Julius Avery, whose only previous directorial credit is the fairly obscure crime drama Son of a Gun. (His next slated project is a remake of Flash Gordon.) Avery's work behind the scenes feels like the effort of a tried and tested genre veteran, as he knows exactly what routes to take without stepping on any potential landmines. Many good directors could have taken this same screenplay and delivered something far less visceral and entertaining, but Avery manages to relish in the conventions and clichés of his chosen genres while simultaneously approaching the whole thing with seriousness and sincerity.

He is helped in his efforts by a fantastic cast of character actors, including Jovan Adepo (Fences, The Leftovers), who plays protagonist Private Ed Boyce, a reluctant and somewhat cowardly soldier who must overcome his fears and the mistrust of his brothers in order to become the kind of hero he needs to be, Wyatt Russell (Shimmer Lake, Lodge 49), who plays the hardened explosive expert, Corporal Ford, highest ranking survivor and most adamant about completing the mission regardless of the cost, Mathilde Ollivier (The Misfortunes of François Jane), who plays a tough French villager who reluctantly helps the Americans, and Pilou Asbæk (Ghost in the Shell, Game of Thrones), who plays the absurdly over-the-top central villain, Wafner. Perhaps my favorite performance, however, belongs to Bokeem Woodbine (Spider-Man: Homecoming, Fargo), who plays the relatively minor Sergeant Eldson.

Overlord
The actors are virtual unknowns, but they do fantastic

He owns the first ten to fifteen minutes of the film, which are singularly intense. The dead-of-night drop takes place under extremely heavy fire, full of fire and fury, and it's exactly as chaotic as it should be. This is where comparisons to Saving Private Ryan aren't entirely unjustified. This opening sequence conveys the horror faced by the men who dropped into France in preparation for the Normandy invasion, and it's harrowing, marked by a prolonged, claustrophobic shot of Private Boyce's upper body as he twists and spins in midair while bullet tracers whizz past, debris tumbles nearby, and airplanes explode all around. This sets the pace for a film that wants to get your attention, and boy, does it succeed.

From here, it plays out like a typical--albeit pretty good--war flick. Themes of accepting what you must become in order to survive are laid out efficiently and obviously; there's a lot of cat and mouse as soldiers reconnect and hide from the enemy; dilemmas about mission priorities are laid out simply and starkly; and the way the soldiers interact with the French woman whose house they commandeer as a makeshift base of operations is a predictable microchosm of the Franco-American alliance of WWII. However, there's an extra layer of dread just beneath the surface, highlighted by a "sick" aunt in the house whose breathing sounds inhuman and the hints that there is more going on in the church than just wartime communications. Without getting into details, this undercurrent slowly increases in volume as the war film tropes decrease, morphing the film into a kind of grotesque haunted house tale until, by the end, it's a full-on zombie nightmare with Nazis. (My biggest gripes, plot-wise, include a slightly wonky climax and a tonally awkward denoument.)

Overlord
You got something on your face, there, buddy

Make no mistakes: this is not a film for the squeamish. It is straight-up gross, and the practical effects are deliciously disturbing. It does occasionally cross that line into so-disgusting-it's-actually-funny territory, but those moments are relatively few and aren't lingered on too long. While the budget is high for an R-rated genre film, it's still low enough that the effects are noteworthy. While the CGI in certain action scenes (including that amazing opening sequence) never really loses that CG sheen, it also never breaks suspension of disbelief, and the heavy reliance on practical effects is a welcome return of a film art that seemed all but lost to Hollywood only a few years ago. (I write this not long after reviewing 2011's The Thing, so I'm pretty sensitive on the subject.)

As a brief aside, there are persistent rumors that this film was originally slated to be folded into the Cloverfield anthology series. If The Cloverfield Paradox hadn't derailed it, that might have worked, and it probably would have given the film a bit more box office clout, not to mention stretching the anthology into a broader definition. Still, it's not a perfect fit, and maybe Overlord doesn't deserve to be saddled with the legacy of a franchise. And yeah, thanks to The Cloverfield Paradox, that franchise doesn't have the credibility it had a year ago.

Back to the subject at hand, though, Overlord is not without one glaring flaw: it's surprisingly formulaic. Though it does everything right, has plenty of intense action, and hits some great macabre horror beats, Overlord is destined to be a forgettable slice of guilty pleasure entertainment. It will have its lasting fans, but it lacks the originality necessary to cut through the clutter of blockbuster genre films and have any kind of impact. If it sounds like the kind of thing you'd like, by all means, go see it immediately, because it is incredibly well-made. However, at the end of the day, it's nothing more than an utterly predictable tale of Nazis and zombie mutants.

FINAL SCORE:

As Nazi zombie flicks go, this is definitely the best, but it doesn't break any new ground or do anything for audiences outside its genre niche.


-e. magill 11/15/2018

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