Overlord Review: A Solid, Albeit Familiar Genre Exercise
Like many Bad Robot projects, Overlord is most effective if you go into the movie knowing as little as possible. Although this movie was once rumored to be another Cloverfield sequel, it’s not – and its all the better for it. It’s kind of a miracle that a movie like Overlord even got made in the first place. We live in an age where Hollywood values name talent and known IP’s, plain and simple. With that said, Overlord proves that there’s still audience appeal in telling original stories. Moreover, it’s also proof that there’s still space for filmmakers to make seemingly new and different genre films – even if it means recycling some familiar ideas.
There’s something about Overlord that feels like a product of several different genre influences. Overlord takes place on the eve of WWII’s D-Day, following a group of soldiers who are sent behind enemy lines to destroy a German radio tower in preparation for the impending attack. When they become stranded in the Nazi-occupied village that surrounds the tower, the soldiers discover something far more sinister at play. Although the film uses history as a framing device, it is an amalgam of several genre influences. Taking cues from body horror, zombie and war movies, Overlord sprinkles in a bit of Tarantino-esque revisionist history and wraps it all up in an nice 80’s B-Movie aesthetic.
One of the best aspects of Overlord is they way that the filmmakers handle the material. The film’s story is the brainchild of producer J.J. Abrams and screenwriter Billy Ray. In many ways, the two wear their genre influences on their sleeves, providing a solid – albeit simple – story to boot. In terms of the plot, the screenplay by Ray does a fantastic job of building anticipation and mystery. The first half of Overlord is absolutely a slow burn, taking its time to build as much character as possible before the shit truly hits the fan. This isn’t to say that the film is slow; it’s just that it devotes just enough time to characterization for us to actually care when things do get crazy.
Similarly, Director Julius Avery’s interpretation of the material is equally as impressive. Despite a rather bombastic opening to Overlord, Avery takes an extremely controlled approach to the storytelling in the film. Interestingly enough, what works so well about this is how uncompromising the film feels at times. Sure, it’s somewhat predictable, but the suspense and sheer gore factor makes up for this. Overlord is the kind of movie that doesn’t pull any punches. At the same time, it never sacrifices dramatic realism for the sake of pushing the story forward. In other words, it’s a movie that treats itself seriously without falling victim to absolute realism.
Another part of the reason why Overlord is so effective is how well the film utilizes a cast of mostly unknowns. Despite a few familiar faces, the film revels in the fact that you don’t know who will survive this experience. This is in part due to the performances, particularly the trio of Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, and Mathilde Ollivier. Ollivier’s performance is easily the standout here, ultimately providing the sense of humanity and stakes that anchors the film in a realistic enough way. Using this dynamic, Overlord convincingly presents grounded characters that each have their own sense of morality and nuance.
As Bad Robot’s first R-rated release, you’d expect a certain level of restraint in the application of gore. Instead, the converse is actually true. The liberal use of gore and violence are particularly welcome in a movie like this. Although it’s aided with VFX, what’s great about Overlord is the way that it revels in the use of practical effects. Similarly, the film also bludgeons the audience from an audio perspective. Indeed, the first act of the film is a shocking audio/visual experience. With that said, Overlord makes effective use of a mostly ambient soundtrack, ultimately helping to increase the sense of dread that builds throughout the film.
With all the great work that Overlord does in its first two acts, it also tends to falter toward its conclusion. Thematically speaking, there’s not much that the film has to say other than “Nazis are bad”. On a moral level, there some interesting ideas that are explored, but they never really feel fulfilled. In terms of internal logic, the film leaves a bit to be desired. The screenplay posits the question of why our characters are even continuing with their mission in the first place but never really gives us a good answer. While Overlord certainly treats it’s subject matter with the respect that it deserves, it sometimes ventures into hokey territory – especially toward the end of the film.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Overlord is a film that manages expectations well, but never really exceeds them. The film is certainly a feast for the senses, but afterward there’s not much that you’ll take away from it. It’s a movie that’s brutal and aggressive, often pummeling the audience into submission. It’s a strong genre exercise that plays on audience expectation. Ultimately, Overlord provides an interesting combination of elements that manage to fulfill its premise. But that’s pretty much what you get – nothing more and nothing less.