Julius Avery may get the directing credit, but when it comes to marketing the action-adventure/horror with a WWII setting, one set for release on Veterans Day weekend, it’s the star producer’s name you’ll hear. With a solid reputation for creating, writing, developing, and often directing high-profile action thrillers, little wonder it’s J.J. Abrams at the forefront of publicity for Overlord. Look at the poster. It’s right at the top. Makes perfect sense.
It’s June 1944. With D-Day about to be launched, a team of American paratroopers flies across the English Channel with a specific mission. They’re to drop into Nazi-occupied France, locate a certain church in a small French village and destroy the tower. There’s a radio transmitter at the top that’s blocking messages. The men have until 06:00 to get it done.
Beginning with both the Paramount Pictures and the Bad Robot Productions logos presented in black and white, including the opening moments of the film itself, knowing things start just ahead of D-Day and the allied Normandy Invasion, the look of the widescreen, colorless image evokes an immediate memory of The Longest Day and how we often recall seeing pictures taken during the second world war; in black and white. But as credits begin, color soon bleeds in.
No sooner has the plane reached the French shoreline when firing from German guns below begins. In a breathtakingly startling sequence, explosions, firebombs, and bullets rip through the plane’s fuselage, killing most of the paratroopers and causing the plane to nosedive, crashing a distance away from the target landing. Those few that survive eventually meet up, group together, and with the help of a local French woman scavenging for anything she can find in the nearby woods, make their way to where they think the village and tower is.
At this point, having helplessly watched their sergeant machine-gunned by the Germans, the guys turn to explosives expert Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell) to assume command. When hothead paratrooper Tibbet (John Magaro) insists on getting revenge on the sarge’s murder, the no-nonsense Ford pulls him back with orders to stay focused. “The sergeant wasn’t the mission,” he insists. “We’ve gotta get that tower down by oh-six hundred.”
But something weird is going on. The first sign is the discovery of a body that looks as though it was set on fire in the woods. It could be an animal or it could be human. It’s difficult to tell. “I can see an eye,” says Tibbet. The second sign is in the village by the church and its tower. The young French woman (Mathilde Ollivier) hides the troopers in her attic, a home she shares with her little brother and her aunt. But the aunt is not well, and she’s hidden away in her room where she can be heard wheezing and hacking. Looking at the woman through a crack in the open door, Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo) can’t quite make out what he’s seeing, but whatever it is, it’s enough to startle and make him gasp. At a quick glance, the aunt looks as though she might possess the worst case of leprosy on record. And for anyone who knows their genre, it looks more as though the woman might actually be mutating. “She hasn’t spoken since she came back from the church,” the young French woman explains.
If you’ve seen the trailer, there’ll be little to follow that’s going to surprise. In a matter of a few promotional seconds, it’s amazing how so much information, things usually associated with being plot-spoilers, is revealed. Once you’ve seen the teasers, you’ve pretty much seen the film. If you haven’t, avoid clips and trailers as much as possible. And as far as a synopsis in a review goes, let’s just say, with a well-documented history of medical experiments performed on prisoners by psychotic German doctors and scientists, something rotten is going on in the basement below the church, involving suspicious looking serums administered with long pointy syringes, and dead bodies. As the villainous Nazi officer Wafner states, “Germany will have an invincible army.”
The episode inside the plane as the bodies of paratroopers are ripped apart by gunfire or burnt alive by firebombs is unexpected and shocking in its execution. It’s like being slapped repeatedly in the face out of nowhere and stunned into silence by someone you didn’t even know was there. The realism is overwhelming, worthy of any serious telling of a WWII real-life tale, but made all the more surprising knowing that the film you’re watching is really a fantasy horror adventure. Since the filming of that shockingly realistic and abrupt battle of Normandy opening sequence as presented twenty years ago in Saving Private Ryan, there’s no soft-peddling the presentation of war for audiences any longer, even in a fantasy.
As events and the horror elements develop – as if the real-life fright of plunging headfirst into a war isn’t horrifying enough – the film becomes more graphically violent and brutal. Despite the realism of that opening sequence in the skies and Boyce’s all too real and thoroughly scary parachute jump, there’s a large dose of midnight-movie cult favorite fun about the film, conveyed by the dismayed paratroopers as they come across one what-the-hell moment after another. That is to say, at first. But unless you’re a hardcore horror aficionado and revel in the borderline obscenity of in-your-face gore, what might have seemed fun starts turning sour. Sights and scenes that would have shocked an earlier generation and had them fainting in the aisles – remember how The Exorcist actually had first-aid paramedics on alert at some theatres? – are nothing compared with Overlord. Even something as straightforward as an interrogation of a Nazi is depicted as an act of over-the-top brutality.
In the end, it’s all escapism, albeit exceptionally chaotically violent escapism with emphasis on the gore. With its tale of re-animation, villainous Nazis (including one who even has the nerve to spit on an American baseball), and beyond-the-call-of-duty heroism by a small band of American paratroopers on foreign soil, fans of fantasy horror should be satisfied. Though one thing: releasing the film on a weekend that in England is Remembrance Day and in America is Veteran’s Day, a time for honoring the fallen and the brave who gave their lives in the real war, is questionable. Its teenage audience and followers of horror presumably won’t give it a second thought, but older audiences might. The studio could receive some flak. It’s possible. There have already been reports. Don’t be surprised if you read a generic PR statement saying it meant no disrespect and that Overload was timed to honor the brave men and women who fought and died. If the film was, say, A Bridge Too Far, that would be fine. But Overlord? That’s pushing it.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 109 Minutes