From the moment J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions grabbed the reins of Overlord, rumors persisted that, like 10 Cloverfield Lane (née The Cellar) and The Cloverfield Paradox (née The God Particle), it would be knit after-the-fact into Abrams’ ever-more-loosely connected universe. In this rare occasion, Abrams’ denials were truthful, though; this is a fully standalone effort, with nary a monster egg or whatever lurking beyond the credits. Yet Overlord still clings to a sense of being retrofit, a boilerplate WWII film given new life by way of humans being given new life—that is, thanks to what feels like an exquisite, reanimated corpse of final-act scares and artful effort.
As already built up in its trailers, Overlord joins the likes of Wolfenstein, Hellboy, Dead Snow, and numerous other titles in envisioning a no-longer-daring revisionist history: what if the list of Nazi scientific atrocities also included success in raising the dead? Most of those revisionist fictions have some level of joyful abandon in that insane idea. Overlord, despite its numerous B-movie trappings, is fairly unwinking, aiming instead for genre shocks—and those only come in its 11th hour. Its screenplay otherwise reads like an actual “I forced a bot to watch 1,000 hours of World War II movies” script, filled with stock characters, situations, and lines seen in so many a recreation of occupied France. It shouldn’t really work at all, but thanks to a strong, game cast and Julius Avery’s sometimes noteworthy direction, it works just often enough.
Avery very early kicks us right into the shit with a brilliantly intense sequence that follows U.S. paratrooper Pvt. Boyce (Leftovers and Fences standout Jovan Adepo) as he escapes from his squad’s plane, shot down on the way to a mission to take down a radio tower. The director never quite recaptures the raw thrills of that sequence, but he certainly connects us to our protagonist—the cute, sensitive one of this Boy Band of Brothers. Boyce soon meets up with the rest of his crew: Cpl. Ford (Wyatt Russell), the brooding, hunky one; Tibbet, the bad boy New Yorker (John Magaro); and Chase (Iain De Caestecker), the artistic pretty-boy. Regrouped, they run into Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), a beautiful, tough-as-nails young woman that’s basically a flesh golem of deconstructed Inglourious Basterds actresses. Through Goonies-style Mikey-peeks-at-a-wailing-Sloth moments, we come to learn that her town’s Nazis have birthed even stranger and far less attractive experiments than her. It’s up to the remaining squad to finish their mission and take down that tower. And also to abruptly force that horror angle in by the last twenty minutes or so.
Still, despite being derivative, endlessly clichéd, and as much an action-horror as Saving Private Ryan is a Matt Damon drama, Overlord keeps its tropes rolling along enough that they’re all pretty effective, faults be damned. Its scriptwriters could have potentially made a cult hit had they leaned further into their premise; instead, it’s a decent, brutal war movie buoyed by supernatural gore and, more so, everyone else injecting this thing with the lifeblood Hitler just won’t stop stabbing into zombie veins.
Director: Julius Avery
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Runtime: 110 minutes
Cast: Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Ollivier, John Magaro, Gianny Taufer, Pilou Asbæk