Overlord movie review: underwhelmed

Overlord red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

This Nazis-with-supernatural-weapons horror schlock drags its feet getting to its fantastical elements and then does absolutely nothing interesting with them, just wallows in dull, rote gore and grue.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): Nazis, I hate these guys
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

Nazis with supernatural weapons? Is this movie taking place in the alt-universe where Indiana Jones wasn’t able to prevent Hitler from getting his hands on the Ark of the Covenant? You’ll wait a long while to find out in Overlord, which drags its feet getting to its fantastical elements and then does absolutely nothing interesting with them once it arrives there. The flick may open with terrifying elegance, but by the end it has descended into a slab of WWII horror schlock crammed with dull, rote gore and grue that plays more like an unrealized concept for a video game than a movie. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that this is, in fact, one giant advertisement for an upcoming game that pits you, as a US Army grunt, against Nazi soldiers who have been–

Most genre movies get bigger as they go, building to a huge finale. Overlord seems to shrink in on itself after its big opener.

Well, I won’t spoil, even if there’s precious little unexpected about what we encounter here. There’s plenty familiar even while Overlord treads water through its first half, before what bare story it has to offer actually starts, as it sets up its scenario: On the night before the D-Day invasion in June 1944, a small band of American soldiers parachutes into enemy territory behind the Normandy beaches on a mission to take out a German radio tower jamming Allied transmissions. This is essential if the invasion is to succeed. (“Overlord,” as you may know, was the codename for the entire Allied offensive to push into Europe.) The insertion sequence, all droning warplanes flying through enemy fire in the dark of night and then hellish jumps to the even more dangerous ground below, borrows a whole helluva lot — visually and structurally — from the invasion sequence in Edge of Tomorrow (which was itself, of course, inspired by D-Day), but… fine. It’s pretty thrilling anyway, even if we’ve seen it before, and I bet it looks even more terrific in IMAX. (I saw this on a regular-sized screen.)

“One woman in the movie, and lotsa guys? I can fix that!”
“One woman in the movie, and lotsa guys? I can fix that!”

But while most genre movies get bigger as they go, building to a huge finale, Overlord seems to shrink in on itself after its big opener, getting smaller in every way the longer it goes on. Clichés of the war movie abound, though there’s not even any winking recognition of this in Billy Ray (Secret in Their Eyes, The Hunger Games) and Mark L. Smith’s (The Revenant) script. It’s nice that the nominal protagonist here is a black soldier, Boyce, but nothing distinguishes him beyond that, except Jovan Adepo’s (mother! ) performance: he’s wonderful, with a warm charisma that makes us like him instantly. As an actor, he deserves better. And his character deserves a better movie. The leader of this little band, Ford (Wyatt Russell: Ingrid Goes West, 22 Jump Street), is the usual gruff sarge; I had trouble telling some of the other soldiers apart, they’re so indistinct. Naturally, the Token Girl, French villager Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), stands apart in her token-femaleness, as does the token Nazi officer, Wafner (Pilou Asbæk: Ghost in the Shell, The Great Wall), who is little more than a uniform and a permanent snarl. The extent of characterization Overlord has to offer is Wafner sexually intimidating Chloe, which the Americans must witness so… why? So they will hate the Nazi enough? It’s incredibly lazy stuff.

“Secret Nazi medical experiments? You don’t say...”
“Secret Nazi medical experiments? You don’t say…”

Still, no one goes to a horror flick for incisive character development, right? And yet the movie faffs around for a solid hour before the action moves to the church tower where the target radio jammer is, and to the hidden Nazi lab the Americans discover underneath it, where Bad Things are happening. (Secret Nazi medical experiments? What a shock.) There’s no reason for Overlord to hold off so long revealing what it’s going to be about — what’s really going on — except that it doesn’t know what to do with its secrets once they’re revealed. The film teases hints of the macabre and the unnatural — what’s with Chloe’s aunt, hiding in her room and making weird noises? — but even those teases never gel into anything; often they don’t even make any logical sense within the story itself. (We never understand how Chloe’s aunt could have come to be in the state she’s in, for one.)

As Overlord narrows itself down to the confrontation with what is happening in that Nazi lab, the movie has left no options for itself except violent hacking and hewing of flesh. I guess that was the point of it after all. But Australian director Julius Avery (Son of a Gun), making his big-budget Hollywood debut, has nothing intriguing to offer here, just tedious blood and guts the likes of which we’ve seen before.

A shorter version of this review appeared first at The List.

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