‘Overlord’ Review: An Aggressively Boring Nazi Zombie Rehash
Let’s get this out of the way up front: Overlord is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a Cloverfield movie. There are monsters — both literal and figurative — and a sci-fi horror plot with a vague whiff of Lovecraft, but the latest film from J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot is entirely its own beast, for better or worse. Unfortunately in this case it’s the latter, as what was clearly intended to be a timely thriller fails to deliver on nearly every level.
Directed by Julius Avery (Son of a Gun) from a screenplay by Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) and Mark L. Smith (The Revenant), Overlord is set on the eve of D-Day during World War II. We know this from the opening scene, in which a company of paratroopers led by Bokeem Woodbine (in a thankless role) prepare to drop behind enemy lines in Normandy, France. Their mission to destroy a German radio tower is complicated when a group of Nazis led by Dr. Wafner (Pilou Asbæk) force them to take refuge in the home of a local woman named Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), who reveals that zee Nazis are — in the least shocking development of all time — up to no good.
Overlord doesn’t take too long to get going, though it is not nearly as action-packed or thrilling as its trailers — which contain nearly every action scene in the film — would suggest. Inspired by actual Nazi experimentation during World War II, the big hook is that German scientists are working to create zombie super-soldiers, or, as Wafner explains: “The thousand-year Reich needs thousand-year soldiers.” The basic premise is inherently intriguing, but aside from an early scene in which Jovan Adepo’s Pvt. Boyce first discovers the fruits of these demented labors (a sequence weirdly evocative of Ripley finding her clones in Alien: Resurrection), there’s nothing particularly astonishing about any of it.
Adepo, Ollivier and Wyatt Russell are fun to watch — especially in the back-half of Overlord, when Ollivier finally gets in on the action. Although it’s nice to see a woman and a person of color leading a film of this size from a company like Bad Robot, their performances aren’t enough to distract from the script’s clumsy attempts at moral commentary, like when Chloe punches a Nazi in the face — as if there were any lingering doubts about whether it’s acceptable to do so.
Based on an idea conceived by Abrams and Ray, Overlord feels like a half-baked response to the Twitter arguments about the right way to deal with Nazis or the “Alt-Right.” Should you stoop to their level and meet violence with violence, or take the moral high ground? And what is that moral high ground anymore, anyway? Overlord doesn’t have any of these answers; what it does have is one giant, heavy-handed metaphor that we’ve seen numerous times in movies and video games over the last few decades: Nazis depicted as literal monsters, and zombies, at that. If you’ve played Wolfenstein or seen horror films like Blood Creek or Dead Snow, then you’ve seen the only thing Overlord has going for it in terms of a hook.
There is no question at this point that Overlord was originally intended as a Cloverfield film. Back in April of this year, Abrams announced that it would be completely divorced from the series — maybe not a bad idea, considering the failure of The Cloverfield Paradox. But Overlord feels like it’s missing something, as if bits of connective tissue were excised from the film. Curiously, despite the fact that the movie features numerous Nazi soldiers, there is not a single swastika to be found. There are a couple of SS symbols, but no swastikas. That’s a strange but surely deliberate choice, and it certainly seems like there’s an explanation for it sitting on Bad Robot’s cutting room floor — along with whatever would have connected this to the Cloverfield universe.
That theory is supported by a mysterious orange-ish substance the Nazis are mining from the ground beneath the small French village outside Normandy, and which they’ve been injecting into their (formerly) human test subjects. One could easily imagine how this subterranean substance would tie into the Cloverfield mythology.
But Overlord isn’t a Cloverfield movie and should be judged as Abrams intended — entirely separate and on its own merits, of which there are so few. Using World War II and Nazis as a genre narrative vehicle is not only insanely played out, but feels lazy in 2018; it doesn’t convey anything the audience shouldn’t already know, and the sort of people who still sadly need to be told that Nazis are bad are not the sort of people who would happily take that message away from this film. Actually, they’re probably the kind of people who would complain about the absence of swastikas.
As a piece of moral commentary cloaked in a sci-fi gimmick, Overlord is uninspired. As an action thriller, it’s just aggressively boring. Maybe because it exhaustively recycles imagery from any number of genre films that came before it (it’s particularly fond of paying homage to the Alien franchise), or because the action sequences are bizarrely monotonous, save for the occasional bit of gory VFX. Maybe it’s because the most interesting thing about Overlord is the movie it could’ve been or almost was; whether or not that movie would’ve been any better seems irrelevant.
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