On serums and mutations, power itself, and Nazis as the ultimate misdirect
Overlord Paramount Pictures
Director: Julius Avery
Screenplay: Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith
Starring: Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Ollivier, John Magaro, Pilou Asbæk, Iain De Caestecker, Dominic Applewhite and Bokeem Woodbine
Rated R / 1 hour, 50 minutes / 2.39:1
November 9, 2018
(out of four)
Nazis make for one hell of a MacGuffin.
Movies set on or around D-Day tend to be explicitly about D-Day, but Overlord, while set amongst American soldiers in a Nazi-occupied village the night before the Normandy invasions, is focused on other matters entirely. And for good reason: What they run up against is, or would have been, a much more historically momentous development than what happened on those beaches - and one that would have rendered the Allied victories during the summer of 1944 essentially moot.
The Third Reich's enthusiasm for genetic and medical experiments and its flirtations with the occult have long been common ingredients in horror and science-fiction, and Overlord is a knowing participant in that tradition. It's an example of the JJ Abrams / Bad Robot machine when it's humming along the right away: The straightforward genre pleasures - easy-to-sell concepts; strong production values - built on moderate, but not daunting, ambition and executed with workmanlike skill, with a clever twist or two thrown in for good measure. Think the first two Cloverfield movies, or Super 8, or Joy Ride, or Person of Interest. And so a movie about World War II paratroopers battling Nazis, Nazi-created zombies, and Zombie Nazis is right in that wheelhouse. Directed by Julius Avery from a script by Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith, Overlord is a splendid B-movie that more or less looks like a polished studio war epic. And as far as its characters are concerned, they begin the movie with a mission very much in line with polished studio war epics: Sneak into Nazi-occupied France to take down a radio tower and help facilitate the pending invasion. They certainly didn't intend to stumble upon a dank underground lab in which German doctors are experimenting on civilians with a serum intended to reanimate the dead and transform them into superhuman, bullet-resistant attack dogs. It just sorta happened.
And more to the point, stopping those German doctors from turning dead French villagers into superhuman, bullet-resistant attack dogs - or, god forbid, power-thirsty Nazi soldiers injecting themselves with the serum in a wild stab at superpowered immortality - is not the mission. All they've gotta do is take down that radio tower - the all-business Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell), the company's de-facto leader after his superiors were shot down during the film's opening sequence, is very insistent about that. Those are the orders. The zombies and the Nazis will just have to wait.
But of course it's ultimately the radio tower that takes a backseat, mainly because the soldiers' eagerness to protect the young woman who took them in runs them afoul of the local Nazi troops. Namely Captain Wafner (Danish actor Pilou Asbæk, of A War, Borgen and Game of Thrones), the malevolent SS officer with whom Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier) is involved in a coerced, transactional sexual arrangement.
But the endgame for Overlord isn't that our heroes need to defeat the Nazis, nor that they need to get that dangerous medical technology out of the Nazis' hands. That this serum is in the hands of the Nazis is both an ideological worst-case scenario and a sort of misdirect, for the ultimate evil here is the serum's very existence. No one should have access to it. No one should be creating super-soldiers or races of immortal beings. At one point, an American soldier injects a just-dead fellow infantryman with the serum, unsure of what it will do or how it's even supposed to work. Within a couple of minutes, the true implications of what they've done - as exciting as it was to see their friend and brother spring back to life - become clear, and they have to kill him (again) without hesitation.
This point is made multiple times - and explicitly - in a way that fits comfortably in a particular type of war-movie formula in which soldiers work to achieve clear-cut moral objectives. Even, as the case may be, if it means abandoning your orders about that damn radio tower.
Fighting alongside Ford - and often butting heads with him - is Private Boyce, still wet behind the ears, still innocent, still viewing this war as a surreal, and virtually inexplicable, experience. As such, he is our moral and emotional center, and it's he who discovers the lab, saves the life of a missing member of his platoon (who's already been subjected to the early stages of the experimentation process), escapes back into town, and catches a glimpse of a still-conscious disembodied head and various other biological works-in-progress on the way out. Quite an introduction to the horrors of war.
Boyce is played by the talented newcomer Jovan Adepo, who played Denzel Washington's son in the Oscar winner's adaptation of Fences, as well as a key role in seasons two and three of The Leftovers. Filling out the cast are solid young character actors like John Magaro (The Big Short, Not Fade Away, Orange is the New Black) and Jacob Anderson (Grey Worm from Game of Thrones), most of whom play, in another grand war-thriller tradition, characters with just enough personal distinction to make them memorable but not enough to make them tragic.
I called Overlord a B-movie earlier, and it is, but what's impressive is that Avery is not too eager to get to the goods, as it were. He's not trying to pander to any audience - to skip right to the part where reanimated corpses start splattering and the grunts get to kill them some Nazis. The film is committed to its story, to its heroes and its villains, to its ticking-clock timeline, and to its moral reasoning. It's not a slow movie, but it's in no rush, either; it refuses to sell its narrative short. Which is good, because there are a lot of nice touches to savor, both leading up to and in the middle of the inevitable carnage.
There's an alluring disquiet to the moments just after our surviving troopers have landed in France, transforming the straightforward mission into something of an ominous wartime nightmare. In the dead of night they float through a blue moonlit fog, past a dreamy orange haze of a nearby fire, before finally finding their way into the abandoned leftovers of what used to be a town.
Once our central facts are squarely on the table, Avery doesn't scrimp on the macabre details - the specificity of the various experiments Boyce glimpses during his one-man rescue op, and the warped frame of mind they reveal about the enemy they're up against. There's a lot of terrific makeup and effects work - strong practical effects with CGI enhancements - that make the entire premise, and these soldiers' entire experience, credible where a lesser film would have made it campy. Overlord finds its sense of humor in the more authentically unsettling moments. There's a loony absurdity to the physical logic once the film puts the serum actively into play - particularly among characters with names, not just background corpses.
This movie had a reported budget of $38 million; a much higher number would have been pretty easy to believe. There was a time, not too long ago, when this was widely understood to be another rogue Cloverfield installment. Whether that was ever true - or was considered an option by Abrams, Bad Robot, or Paramount - I can't say. But from this vantage point, it's probably best that it stayed unburdened by any brand recognition; Overlord doesn't need decades of interconnected extraterrestrial mythology to say what it wants to say about the existential danger of incomprehensible power.