Directed By: Julius Avery
Release Date: November 9, 2018
Starring: Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Ollivier, Pilou Asbæk
There's an image in Julius Avery's Overlord that's been stuck in my mind over the last week since I saw the film. Set on the night before D-Day, the film opens with a team of paratroopers being flown in to France to destroy a Nazi radio tower set up at a church so that the Allies can safely storm Normandy, only to have their plane shot down. Young private Ed Boyce (Jovan Adepo) survives the event and finds himself wandering the woods alone in search of other members of his team, which includes a sniper named Tibbet (John Magaro), a photographer named Chase (Iain De Caestecker), and corporal/demolitions expert Ford (Wyatt Russell).
Eventually, what remains of the team reunite to push on with their mission, encountering a young woman named Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier) who lives in the village that the Germans have occupied. Though she helps them hide from the Nazis that patrol the streets, taking random townsfolk from their homes to undergo experiments performed by a mysterious Nazi doctor at the church, so that they can plan the destruction of the tower, time is against them, and as things begin to snowball, they learn the horrible truth about what's really going on at the church.
I won't say anything more about where the film goes from there, but I will say this: The image that I've been returning to is early in the film, not long after Boyce has set foot in France, gunfire and explosions sounding off in the distance. At one point, the camera lingers on the somber sight of several bodies hanging from trees, soldiers dead from failed landings whose parachutes make their limp bodies look like sleeping marionettes, all silhouetted against a foggy, fiery backdrop. It's such a simple illustration of the many horrors of war, understated and easy to blink and miss, but the image in all its haunting glory sums up what's so effective about the film as a whole.
Overlord doesn't burden itself by trying to do too much. Its ambitions are grounded even if the stakes everything is riding on are incredibly high. It takes liberties with real world history, of course, and the last act takes steps into a fantastical horror arena, but for much of its runtime, Overlord is a very solid war movie that finds strength – like its characters – in sticking to the mission. These troops need to succeed with what little time they have to ensure that the storming of Normandy can happen and history can be changed forever, and the film works hard to ensure that no one ever loses sight of that goal no matter what new development unfolds.
Its characters are all well-acted and well-defined, resting in that solid middle ground between being stock stereotypes we've seen way too many times before and needlessly overwritten to the point of bogging down the narrative. Its pacing is quick and snappy, bar a little fat in the second half that could've been cut by five or ten minutes. The action is visceral and earned, the film achieving its big beats by being patient and restrained in the downtime – if one can call it that – to allow us to invest in the characters, their planning, and their overall situation by being genuinely engaging in its quieter moments rather than feeling as though it's trying to rush through them in order to get back to spilling blood.
Even once the film reveals its hand and shows us what the Nazi experiments are that are going on under the church, Overlord doesn't push its luck. There is some great body horror material at play in the film’s second half, but it's also the type of stuff that could've seen the film go easily off the rails if handled wrong, veering off into direct-to-video garbage territory with even the slightest miscalculation. Fortunately, though, Overlord keeps to its own tone, the horror elements simply an effective extension of the solid war movie it is up until they come into play.
As I was watching the film, I kept thinking what something like this would've been like had it been made in the 1980s, directed by someone like John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell, whose son, Wyatt, emulates so much of in his performance here. Overlord feels like a throwback to simple, down and dirty concepts of that era, a B movie with a modern A movie sheen, entertaining in all the right ways because it knows its place, it knows what story it wants to tell, and it knows there's no point indulging in excess when its very premise is more than enough to entertain. It’s an incredibly streamlined film, and all of it adds up to further the aforementioned notion that the experience of watching it lines up with the mission driving the narrative itself, that we need to stay focused for the sake of getting things done, the outcome lingering with you long after it's over because of how simple the whole thing was, much like that image of lifeless soldiers dangling from trees.
I feel as though there's not much more I can say about the film other than that I had such a blast watching it. It's not some grand, sweeping war epic, nor is it an outright horror yarn, but the two genres meet somewhere in the middle to build a rollercoaster of a ride together, supported by great performances, good action, a slick, focused narrative, and solid work by Avery and his production team in bringing this world to life. It's not the type of film that'll blow up the box office and change the pop culture landscape in our franchise-dominated climate, especially due to the fact that it feels as though Paramount is barely marketing it, but it is the type that'll make loyal fans out of those who do go see it, which bodes well for its future as something people will undoubtedly be introducing others to, letting them in on the entertaining little secret that is Overlord for years to come.
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