J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot productions has always created films that start as one thing, only to pull the rug out from under its audience. Lost went from desert island survival show into a supernatural mystery by the end of its first episode, and his Star Trek films played off what audience expected, before making the canon almost completely irrelevant. Overlord is a more gradual twist on format than most Bad Robot productions, starting as a standard World War II action-drama, then morphing into a B-movie influenced body horror film. Both halves blend well together, but neither side is quite developed enough to keep Overlord from feeling like an ambitious disappointment.
Overlord starts with its most fantastic sequence, as a plane full of soldiers is shot down on the eve of D-Day. Director Julius Avery introduces the audience to all of his characters, before shooting them out of the sky in horrific fashion. The events of this crash are far more terrifying than any of the horrors appear later on in the film. Avery focuses on Jovan Adepo’s Boyce, as he watches his friends get shot from underneath, before falling out of a burning airplane, and eventually ending with Boyce flying out of the plane himself. It’s a tense way to start his film that the rest of Overlord can’t live up to.
Boyce soon reunites with many of his fellow soldiers – Ford (Wyatt Russell), Tibbet (John Magaro) and Chase (Iain De Caestecker) – on their mission to take out the Nazi’s radio-jamming tower in a Normandy church. While on the way to their mission, the troupes run into Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), a French woman who has been constantly attacked and terrorized by the German soldiers occupying her town. Chloe houses the soldiers as they try and find their way into the church, but it doesn’t take long before the soldiers realize that the Germans are doing strange experimentation in the basement of the church in an effort to create the perfect super soldier.
Despite hinting at the strange things happening in the church, Overlord takes quite some time to get to the seedier, horror aspects. But when it does get to this point, Avery plays this story like a mix of Inglourious Basterds’ Nazi-killing wish fulfillment, and “Wolfenstein”’s alternate history take on the period. In the end, it’s not so much Overlord genre mashups that pays off, but it’s desire to make taking down Nazis great again.
Yet it is strange, considering Overlord is written by Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) and Mark L. Smith (The Revenant) that the film doesn’t strive for something deeper. As a genre film, sure, Ray and Smith bring more humanity than one would expect, but as a war film, Overlord’s lack of compelling characters and war film cliches leave much to be desired. By the time the film picks up in its second half, it’s more because of the shift in tone, and not because of any dedication to these characters.
Avery opens with a captivating war sequence, and ends with a gross-out zombie-ish conclusion, but the rest of Overlord just can’t compete with his beginning and end. Avery’s hybrid story has strong bookends that surround a lackluster story, full of odd decisions and strange character motivations. Overlord only occasionally shows Avery’s talents in both genres, leaving mediocrity in its middle.