From Hellboy, to Wolfenstein, to Captain America, putting sci-fi or horror elements in your WWII story is never a bad plan. The real-life villains of the SS, the high-tech weapons of war, and the spooky, Gothic castles of Eastern Europe all seem to beg for a vampire or a Hellbeast to be waiting among them. Band of Brothers is great, sure, but Band of the Brotherhood of the Wolf doesn’t sound too bad, either.
That’s the (sort of) idea behind Overlord, the new sci-fi horror film from J.J. Abrams and his production company, Bad Robot. J.J. is only a producer on the film, although he came up with the initial concept for the movie along with the film’s screenwriter, Billy Ray (Hart’s War, Captain Phillips). Here’s that concept: on the night before D-Day, a chalk of paratroopers is dropped over occupied France with a mission to support the Normandy invasion by destroying a radio tower in a small village. The drop, like many of the real-life airborne landings that night, doesn’t go exactly as planned, and the squad is reduced to a handful of men, including bleeding-heart Boyce (star Jovan Adepo), mouthy Tibbet (John Magaro), combat photographer Chase (Iain De Caestecker), and the flinty, mysterious Ford (Wyatt Russell), a late transfer to the company whose only focus is the mission. The group, with the help of local Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), makes their way to the town where their target stands, a church the Nazis have co-opted for their strategic radio tower. But the church itself hides a secret: a Nazi lab run by SS officer Wafner (Pilou Asbæk), where a sinister ichor is being used in human experimentation to create “thousand-year soldiers for the thousand-year Reich.”
Like the mission in the film, Overlord doesn’t come off exactly as intended. J.J. Abrams—Mr. “I liked Spielberg so much, I bought the company”—had built an empire writing, producing, and directing PG-13, family-friendly tentpole pics LONG before he achieved the summit of palatable genre cinema with Star Wars. Overlord, the first R-rated film from Bad Robot (not counting their stake in 2001’s Joy Ride), attempts to hit you with WWII-adjacent gore and dread, like the Norwegian splatterfest Dead Snow or Michael Mann’s baleful The Keep, but it’s more of a Market Garden than, well, an Overlord. The WWII elements are chiefly copped from better films and series (“homages” to Band of Brothers, The Dirty Dozen, and The Longest Day all report for duty here), and the movie’s horror elements never live up to the kitchen-sink (but enticing) premise of “Nazi demon zombies”. The film’s wet and sinewy monster transformations suggest The Thing, but fans of gore (or of high-tension paranoia) shouldn’t expect anything similar here. Overlord is too safe and too conventional to be the creepshow it aspires to be.
Overlord does have a lot going for it, however. Director Julius Avery (Son of a Gun) handles the camera well during the film’s chaotic action, whether supernatural or more conventional. The opening sequence of our heroes struggling to escape the hellish inferno of their damaged plane and Boyce’s chaotic tumble as he falls through German AA fire over France would snap seamlessly into any modern war movie . . . or any Wolfenstein cutscene, for what it’s worth. In the film’s finale, a character flees the exploding Nazi lab in a single (digitally-assisted) take that’s flatly impressive and thrilling. None of it feels much like a horror film, though. The clean, well-lit look of an Abrams film (minus the lens-flares, thankfully) cuts against the spooky atmosphere the movie tries to maintain, and the sparse action elements all but drown out the attempts at shocks and scares. Characters act like you’d expect them to in any bog-standard WWII pastiche: there’s the cold, driven CO, the reluctant pacifist, the clueless intellectual, the “Ay! I’m from Noo Yawk!” guy, the nervous Jewish dude, the wary and beautiful partisan, and, inexplicably, a cute, baseball-loving kid? This isn’t exactly Dog Soldiers.
The Revenant screenwriter Mark L. Smith did a polish on the script— drawing perhaps on his B-movie past—but it’s hard to see what good he may have brought to Overlord, unless it’s the film’s middle sequence, a tense standoff in an attic that begins like the opening of Inglourious Basterds and ends like the middle of Saving Private Ryan (if Tech. Sgt. Wade had turned into a veiny, goo zombie, that is). Working much harder than the script is Jovan Adepo, late of The Leftovers and Fences, who does the best with what he’s given to show his character’s development from reluctant peacenik to passionate hero. Another standout is Pilou Asbæk (Ghost in the Shell, Game of Thrones) as the predatory SS officer in charge of building unstoppable soldiers for the Fuhrer. His predictable transformation from figurative to literal monster is certainly disgusting, if not particularly compelling.
Overlord is slick and fun while it lasts, but it misses most of the best parts of the films that it homages. For all that it borrows from other WWII movies, the obvious theme of Nazis being defeated by a coalition of diverse soldiers goes curiously unemployed. This is a film where a Black Creole G.I. defeats racial purists who are injecting themselves with strange, exotic goop to turn themselves into literal monsters, but the film barely registers any thematic significance. As deep as the mysterious pit below the cursed chapel may go, Overlord remains fully above ground.
Overlord opens nationwide on November 9th.
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