by Philip Price
Director: Julius Avery
Starring: Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell & Mathilde Ollivier
Runtime: 1 hour & 50 minutes
Here’s the thing about “Overlord” … I saw the trailer so many times I felt like I knew the movie back to front before I even walked in. It was one of those things where I’d notice something different or pick up on something new every time I saw the trailer to the point that when I realized the actual feature was opening this weekend it wasn’t that I didn’t necessarily care to see it, but I definitely felt indifferent about buying a ticket to a movie I didn’t expect to gain anything more from that I hadn’t already been conditioned to expect from the trailer. I tell this aspect of the story to lend a little perspective on why “Overlord” then ultimately came to be something of a pleasant surprise. In expecting a certain level of craft, care, and creativity I low-balled my expectations and was more than happy to find out I was wrong when the film kicked off and immediately kicked into high gear with a level of energy that was infectious. Stranger even, the opening of the film is the same scene that opens the trailer, but while there is the expectation of this being a full feature rather than a short preview there is also something to the altered pacing, musical accompaniment, and/or character dynamics that immediately plays into the level of investment one is willing to give no matter how much they think they know. This is a long way of getting around to saying that, despite the initial indifference through which it had to battle, Overlord is a movie that does very well at what it's built to do. It’s not an exceptional film that says something new or even anything terribly interesting about life or the psychology each of us project on its meaning, but as a movie that sets out to combine the terror of war with the terror of a zombie apocalypse and roll those into a somewhat hackneyed, but fully aware camp fest – “Overlord” accomplishes everything it could hope to and then some.
If unaware of what exactly “Overlord” details it is something of an action/horror mash-up that takes place on the eve of D-Day in the summer of 1944 when a U.S. paratrooper squad is sent to destroy a German radio tower located in an old church. Naturally, things don't go as planned and in an exhilarating opening sequence with a notable title card their plane is shot down before they can reach the target. Through this hellfire we follow Boyce (Jovan Adepo), a soldier who has seemingly been plucked from his routine day to day and tasked with being on the front lines of America's defenses with little to no training outside of basic. It quickly becomes apparent that Boyce is one of only a handful of survivors to make it to the ground in one piece. The mysterious Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell) has also survived along with the loud-mouthed Tibbet (John Magaro), the alternatively quiet Chase (Iain De Caestecker), and the ambitious Dawson (Jacob Anderson). The squad quickly regroups and concocts a plan to navigate their way to the radio tower, but not before coming across a local, Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), who happens to live in the village where the church that houses the radio tower is located. Chloe is willing to shelter the soldiers with in her nearby home where she lives with her younger brother, Paul (Gianny Taufer), and aunt who is sick due to undisclosed Nazi experimenting that definitely doesn't seem to jive with anything legally or morally appropriate. Besides the whole Nazi experiment thing though, Chloe is willing to help the Americans given a Nazi patrol performs routine inspections very routinely as their leader, SS Hauptsturmführer Wafner (Pilou Asbæk, who looks quite similar to Michael Shannon and even acts a little bit like him in this role), forces Chloe to have sex with him or otherwise threatens the safety of her younger brother and aunt. There is an immediate connection between Boyce and Chloe that plays into these circumstances not working for anyone except the evil Wafner, but things only escalate further when Boyce infiltrates the church to find out what other horrors await him and his men behind enemy lines.
These mash-ups of bold genres tend to be pretty cheap-feeling and campy, but without really capitalizing on the camp or fully realizing the potential of the two genres they're bringing together. We've seen examples of this before where cool ideas have come out of placing two opposing genres together and trying to find a story that might work for both of them, but what makes “Overlord” so interesting is the facade that something like “Dawn of the Dead” couldn't be more different than “Saving Private Ryan” when in fact the scenarios presented in each of those films are terrifying in their own right. So, in combining the terror of each screenwriters Billy Ray (“Captain Phillips”) and Mark L. Smith (“The Revenant”) layer in the horrors of war and the danger and fear that come along with that and then, on top of it, drip this glaze across the top of having to deal with something that no one in history has ever dealt with before. There had been wars, even if the soldiers we're along for this journey with had never fought in one; there were expectations to what could happen and conditions that were able to be operated within, but when you throw in something that has no precedent for how to deal with it or effectively fight back against it there is inherently this presence of a different kind of fear. It is on these levels that “Overlord” succeeds in being able to pull off successfully what so many others have failed to do before it. There is something to these layers of similarities that is both unnerving and yet-just fantastical enough to allow the experience of watching the film to be fun instead of being completely dour and/or leaving the viewer in a conscience-stricken state that can't help but to define the dominant tone of the film. And so, while neither the idea nor the movie itself felt very fresh by the time I sat down for the screening, the film surprisingly (and immediately) turned out to deliver on a level, especially in regards to innovation within genre-smashing (there has to be a better term for that), that could not have been glimpsed no matter how many times one sat through the trailer.
Maybe even more surprising than the fact the film somehow manages to pull off a credible, but fun tone despite featuring zombies in World War II is the fact its character work is commendable as well. Adepo, who played Denzel Washington's son in “Fences,” gets tasked with the difficult role of playing bright-eyed and bushy-tailed without it coming off as obvious or obnoxious. Boyce is simply a well-meaning guy with good intentions who got caught up in something he had no control over or choice in. There is a balance to find, a tightrope to walk with this kind of role where there is danger of the earnestness outweighing the realness of the person and while Boyce is certainly someone who is going to do what is right no matter what it never feels like he's going to make choices out of a sense of pride to the extent it would ultimately be a stupid choice. In other words, he's both honorable and sensible-two strong attributes worthy of keeping a balance between. These attributes are also why Boyce is the hero of our story and why we find ourselves rooting for the guy who seems to inherently be the best man in the room even if he may not be as ruthless or as cold as his comrades when it comes to punishing the enemy. Speaking of his comrades, Russell is building quite the fascinating body of work and only continues to demonstrate his diversity in choice of roles with his Corporal Ford. Magaro's Tibbet is the only other soldier we get to know on something of a personal level and while Magaro plays up the trademarks of the time period through the character the script also gives Tibbet a great arc with Chloe's younger brother who, in and of himself, is pretty great. As for Chloe, Ollivier is as much the breakout star here as Adepo if not for the fact she gets the opportunity to tote a flamethrower and incinerate zombies, but more because she makes some of the movies most tense, zombie-free scenes work as well as they do. Each of these personalities lending the film an authenticity that one wouldn't expect to come from an otherwise outlandish scenario. The film finds a center to its madness by melding the 1940's machismo and the (zombie) brains of its protagonists to find this engaging blend of personalities that are both fully fleshed-out and well performed that are able to keep things charming even when things get gnarly.
And sure, there are a few plot holes that may become more glaring on re-watch (surely Wafner doesn’t fall asleep and spend the night with Chloe on the reg), but at the moment these feel more like minor quibbles than they do gaping leaps in logic that ruined the whole of the experience. What was more worth noting was that, at just 10 minutes short of two hours, “Overlord” never lulls and instead builds both expertly and with great investment until it hits the third act at that point allowing the final 25 or so minutes to take the stakes that have been raised and just blow them out of the water with the level of action the film has been suppressing in order to create this moment as it's almost palpable-the action bursting at the film's digital seams, I mean. Director Julius Avery couples his well-constructed plotting and execution with a look that is both minimal and while feeling of great scope when necessary. There are more daytime shots than was expected with the greens of the surrounding landscapes adding to this larger aesthetic. The zombie design is also critical and, more importantly, cool as hell as it is seemingly all practical so as to not have digital effects potentially take the audience out of the time period. Along these same lines, the action also feels grounded and tangible which is important, especially in a war film, but also in a period piece as the presence of CGI can really hinder the sense of realism being portrayed. It's almost as if every element of the film looked at the worst possible scenario for what the movie could have been and actively decided to do the opposite-creating a film that should so obviously be stylish, entertaining and fun into a movie that is actually all of those things and then some.