With any J.J. Abrams-produced film, audiences expect a big mystery waiting to be unveiled. Overlord victim to this expectation early on, with eager fans labeling it anything from an adaptation of the Wolfenstein video games to the fourth entry in the Cloverfield series. Although the film isn’t either of those things, it is a total blast.
Overlord, directed by Julius Avery, is the B-movie to end all B-movies. The story follows a unit of American paratroopers- portrayed by, among others, Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, John Magaro, and Iain De Caestecker- who are preparing for a drop into-a small French town on D-Day. As they wait, screenwriters Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith serve up a heavy helping of humor that’s amplified by the strong chemistry among cast members. Within 5 minutes, we establish the smart ass of the group (Magaro), the square-jawed leader (Russell), and the heart and soul of the group, Pvt. Boyce (Adepo), before kicking the film proper off with a literal bang.
Enemy fighters shoot the plane down, forcing Boyce and the rest of the unit to jump. As he plummets to the ground, Avery creates a visceral, overwhelming sensation. Bullets and fallen soldiers whiz by as we are well and truly locked into his viewpoint. This sequence encapsulates what works so well about much of the film: a pure sense of chaotic mayhem that doesn’t pull back.
Whenever the unit lands in the town, they are hidden away by a local woman, Chloe (Mathilde Oliver), who warns them of Nazi scientist Dr. Wafner (Pilou Asbaek), who is conducting inhumane experiments on locals in hopes of bringing to life an army of super soldiers. Essentially, he’s making Nazi zombies, which is a great set-up for an action-horror, but it takes a while to get there.
Ray and Smith bring on the jokes in spades, faltering when it comes to actually getting to the meat of the story. For around a 20-30 minute stretch, there’s a series of scenes meant to establish character and setting that are a bit hit-or-miss. The most egregious of these scenes are the ones where Wafner tries to intimidate Chloe. Despite committed performances from both parties, these scenes have uncomfortable implications for what Wafner wants from Chloe that are, frankly, a bit tasteless.
Thankfully, this cast is so much fun to watch that we actively want to see them take on Wafner’s creatures and when we get there, the film springs to life. A sequence where de Caestecker’s character goes through a grotesque transformation is a triumph of practical effects that starts a flow of gore that never stops as the American soldiers finds themselves face-to-face with Wafner’s “Thousand Year Army”. Olliver deserves a shout-out for her supremely committed physical performance, outshining her male co-stars with a badass grimace that puts her right up there with the likes of Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley.
Some of this stuff really has to be seen to be believed. Avery absolutely makes good on his promise for a house of horrors as the soldiers go up against mutated creatures that are best described as an “I-Spy” of mangled limbs. Moreover, these characters constantly feel in danger, and the immersive sound design as well as atmospheric cinematography by Laurie Rose and Fabian Wagner ratchets up the tension all the way to the end.
Without question, “atmospheric” is the best word to describe Overlord. Julius Avery took a film that could’ve easily been shlock and absolutely committed. There are issues with the film, and the script fails the film at multiple points near the beginning, but it’s hard to imagine audiences hating this movie. Overlord is a good old-fashioned popcorn movie that celebrates being a genre movie, and that’s hard to come by.
Overlord hits theaters on November 9th!