The premise behind “Overlord” certainly makes for a good elevator pitch. It’s World War II, except this time the Nazis are making zombies as their secret weapon. Watching the trailer, the film promises a lot of blood, a lot of bombs and very little nuance. What more could an audience want?
Well, some originality might be nice. “Overlord” boasts a talented cast and a fair number of genuinely suspenseful, well-structured sequences, all serving as solid entertainment. But ultimately, the film is more interested in retreading familiar genre tropes than subverting them, and it is this stubborn adherence to cliches that prevents “Overlord” from becoming anything truly singular.
The film opens on the eve of D-Day as a group of American paratroopers are given a mission: Destroy a radio transmitter placed atop a church in a Nazi-occupied French town. After only a small group of soldiers survive being dropped behind enemy lines, it discovers sinister experiments taking place in the church.
The Nazis are creating undead soldiers in a secret lab, and the American paratroopers have to stop them.
The plot is staggeringly simple and blends familiar elements of war films and B-movie horror flicks. This devotion to genre pays off particularly well in the action sequences that bookend the film, wherein director Julius Avery’s skill makes common plot points fresh again with excellent production value and an attention to detail. The opening sequence in which the paratroopers jump out of a plane into a sky filled with enemy fire is empowered by gut-wrenching imagery and deafening noise, a gritty glimpse into aerial battle that’s fitting for a great war film.
The film’s second half delves more into the supernatural — and scenes from this portion of the film similarly make use of genre staples to produce some nerve-wracking moments. The discovery of the Nazi lab introduces the audience to some nasty imagery and carefully crafted jump scares; a scene where a character transforms into a zombie is padded with excellent special effects and gut-wrenching screams. The film’s finale, which includes every gory thing but the kitchen sink, is an unbridled violent joy filled with fire, bombs and lots of Nazi deaths.
The characters that populate these scenes, though, aren’t particularly compelling. The film’s major players function more like echoes of well-known tropes than like believable human beings. There’s the protagonist, Boyce (Jovan Adepo), who’s a newcomer to the war and is so compassionate he wouldn’t hurt a mouse. Acting as his foil is Ford (Wyatt Russell), a grizzled veteran who’s clearly seen some shit. His adherence to the mission, above all else, contrasts Boyce’s idealism and desire to save every human life. This dynamic is a mainstay of the war films that “Overlord” clearly aims to emulate. And while Adepo and Russell do an admirable job bouncing off each other, their dialogue largely echoes trite themes.
The other characters are even more stereotypical than the two leads. There’s a soldier from New York who’s seemingly there only to make wisecracks and chew gum as loud as possible. There’s another guy who carries a camera around (his only memorable characteristic). Lastly, Pilou Asbæk’s Wafner is a sufficiently abominable villain, a Nazi commander who utters cartoonish lines such as “I am a God” with the expected melodrama.
The one-dimensionality of the characters results in stifled and slow interactions between them that cause the film to lose all of its steam. None of the dialogue says anything of thematic significance that the audience hasn’t heard a hundred times before, and the plot that these characters inhabit is so recognizable that there’s really no mystery as to what they’ll do next or what their fates will be.
Ultimately, the film never ascends beyond the blueprint of its genre origins. The story, though chock-full of effective sequences, is predictable, and the film doesn’t really have a lot to say about its historical setting. One can’t help but feel that with the impressive technical execution and the solid performances on display in this film, “Overlord” could have risen above the tropes that it was so dedicated to mimicking.
But “Overlord” isn’t committed to rising above; it’s committed to giving its audiences a good time. Sometimes, people just want to watch Nazis (and Nazi zombies) get shot.
And on this desire, at least, “Overlord” delivers in bloody, fabulous fashion.
Contact Grace Orriss at [email protected].