Movie Reviews: Overlord (2018)

It feels good to be done with reviewing so many horror movies and move into November ready to tackle… another horror movie.  Produced by J.J. Abrams, Overlord was originally rumored to be the fourth Cloverfield film (despite the fact that we had just gotten the third Cloverfield film this year in The Cloverfield Paradox) due to the Abrams connection and the way it was shrouded in secrecy.  I can thankfully repeat what countless others have that the movie is not connected to that universe at all and considering that the weakest part of those sequels has been that connection.  Their SPOILERS1 component is most notably gone with the focus instead being on a very traditional war movie.

On a mission right before D-Day (Operation Overlord), a squadron of planes carrying airborne troops heads over Normandy.  At the center of the film is one group of paratroopers who are tasked with knocking out the communications tower on a church.  Their mission gets off to a rough start as their plane and most of their squad is shot down out of the sky in a tense, harrowing scene.  The budget limitations are obvious here in the effects, don’t expect Dunkirk as this was a film made for only $38 million, but they do as well as can be reasonably expected and the film manages a beautifully haunting image of parachutists hanging dead from the trees, lit from behind by the smoke and fires.

The remaining members including a black man (whose race is never commented upon and considering the squad’s commander is also black and played by Bokeem Woodbine, it is clear we are in pure fantasy land and should just accept it even as they draw attention, however briefly, to the fact that one of the others is Jewish) who has an aversion to killing and a sadistic last second transfer (just like Battle Royale and played by Wyatt Russell of Lodge 49).  The survivors start to come across some weird torn up remains and hear of the rumors of what goes on in that church.  That people are being taken by a doctor and coming back changed (if at all).

The film gives every indication that it is going to start as a standard war movie before descending into a twisted horror film and to both the film’s credit and perhaps a bit to my disappointment, it doesn’t do that.  The focus throughout is very much on the plot points you’d expect from so many of these WWII films and I’ve seen dozens just like it from the decades during and immediately following the war.  It hits every cliché you can think of to almost remarkable precision, but it’s those horror elements and the general presentation where the film sets itself apart.

Taking a serious war drama and then splicing in a B-movie body horror (and some other subgenres I very will avoid spoiling), grindhouse movie may feel like an awkward fit, but the film handles the mix adeptly.  It starts by making the war drama into a brutal, gory and uncompromising one and it also manages to make a through line of thrills that may get more ridiculous at times but stays consistently enjoyable.  It’s a bit too fond of the jump scares and more annoying to me and my fragile head, sudden loud sounds/bursts of light to shock, but the film does balance it with more effective builds of tension.

Director Julius Avery (Son of a Gun) has crafted what is first and foremost a very fun film.  There are occasional flickers to something deeper that could have been explored, but that’s hardly the point here.  They exist merely for knowing winks to the audience and nothing more.  The acting is sufficient including from Jovan Adepo (The Leftovers, Fences), Iain De Caestecker, and the rest of the stock company of WWII film characters (with Euron Greyjoy and Grey Worm from Game of Thrones both in this).  There’s just something about Russell that keeps me from taking him completely seriously as the grizzled badass no matter how much the film tells me he is (or considering his pedigree).  I’d love to have seen them embrace the crazy horror more, but to the extent that the film wants to be one, it delivers.