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J.J Abrams has made a well known career about marketing films under a fog of mystery and secrecy, particularly in the Cloverfield franchise of films. His Bad Robot production house has been responsible for some of the more impressive original genre films, Overlord among them. This time, however, the mystery box is gone, replaced by a joyously shlocky, straight forward B-Movie bonanza masquerading around with a bigger budget, gallons of blood, and solid performances.
Abrams picked Aussie Julius Avery to helm Overlord as his sophomore film after he and screenwriter Billy Ray came up with the concept of a small group of WWII paratroopers facing supernatural Nazi experiments during a mission on the eve of D-Day. Featuring an engaging cast, impressive direction, and great gore effects, Overlord turns out to be perhaps the best Abrams-produced film since the original Cloverfield, if not ever.
The film makes no qualms about being made up of spare parts, pun intended. Its general premise feels straight out of the Wolfenstein video games, with a little nod to Call Of Duty’s zombie modes. It features badass women wielding flamethrowers, intense sequences of war, and gnarly creature effects. After most of his squad is annihilated in an absolutely amazing opening plane drop sequence, Pvt. Boyce (Fence’s Adepo) meets up with the few survivors, including the intense Cpl. Ford (Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt) to take out a radio tower set up by Nazis in the church of a small village town. While playing the expected hide-and-seek games with Nazi patrols, they befriend a young woman from the village (Ollivier) and discover that the Nazis have a lot more going on in the village than just a radio tower. Hidden in a secret unground bunker, they’ve been playing with a supernatural substance from deep within the Earth to try and breed invincible soldiers, but instead are creating monstrous abominations. From there, things get wild.
What sells any good genre movie better than effects and gore is the strength of the cast involved, and that’s Overlord’s secret weapon. It’s a who’s-who of strong performers from other shows or movies you’re familiar with. As the Pvt. Boyce, Jovan Adepo provides a capable, convincing lead who evolves from nervous, clumsy soldier to someone willing to put his life on the line to stop unspeakable evil. He’s given plenty of opportunity to react to the madness around him, and he does so with the beating heart of a real character.
His fellow paratroopers fill out your typical war film archetypes, with The Big Short’s John Magaro as the fast-talking wiseass New Yorker Tibbet, Agents of SHIELD’s Iain De Caestecker as the squirrely photographer Chase, and Dominic Applewhite as heavy-gunner Rosenfeld. Relative unknown Mathilde Ollivier holds her own as the soft spoken but determined Chloe, and Game of Throne’s own Euron Greyjob, Pilou Asbæk, proves to be a perfect villain for this type of film, playing the menacing and memorable Nazi officer Wafner.
The real standout of the film is Wyatt Russell. It’s as if Abrams and Avery reached back into time and pulled a younger Kurt into today. Russell plays Cpl. Ford, a new addition to the crew, leaving an air of uncertainty about his motives or his sanity. Ford is focused on getting the job done no matter what the cost, and Russell has his dad’s silent badassery down. When things kick into bloody high gear, however, he opens up with some formidable physical work as well as a couple of one-liners that would make his father proud.
Avery, directing only his second feature after the Australian crime drama Son of a Gun, proves to be a talented hand at staging action and tension, working with images and sequences that may not be new, but certainly feel fresh through his camera. He opens with one of the more effective opening sequences of the year, playing a harrowing paratrooper jump through a lens of impressive tension and horrifying violence and destruction. Even as the film maintains itself as a straightforward WWII film, he structures it as a horror, focusing on the creepier, scarier aspects of hiding behind enemy lines.
When things start getting supernatural, however, is where Avery really gets the chance to run wild. A thrilling sequence where a soldier is seemingly resurrected is built on confusion and quickly rising panic, and others use quiet fear to build that unease. There yet another sequence that uses the popular single-shot technique to follow Boyce running from destruction, and even though it’s shorter than most of your popular, recent single-shot takes, it is still an effective use of not cutting away to build tension in the audience. It doesn’t hurt that Avery and his crew of makeup artists, cinematographers, and designers put together certain shots and character designs, such as a grinning character who’s had half of their face blown off or an experiment room filled with creepy monster-filled pouches of goo, feel like ionic pieces in genre film lore.
If Overlord has one major weakness, is that it doesn’t amount to much other than a helluva good ride. I struggle to call that a weakness, however, because even if it retreads familiar ideas and images, it does so in such a way that excites and thrills so effectively. We’ve seen evil Nazi experiments before, we’ve seen men on a mission before, we’ve even seen badass females rise against their oppressors before, but Overlord takes those familiar items and puts together a film that still rocks.
Even so, Overlord surprises even on a character level. All three major characters, as well as some minor ones, have full, complete character arcs, something that is sadly a rarity these days. Boyce, Ford, Chloe and others start the film as one thing and wind up in completely different areas, something which came across clearly, and that’s to be commended.
The Final Pop
Overlord is a film that takes handfuls of familiar tropes and runs them through a modern lens to craft a thrilling, fun, bloody genre mash-up. A strong script, fleshed out characters and performances, and awesome gore make this a blast of a film, even if it doesn’t have anything important to do beyond having fun.
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