This is a repost of my review from Fantastic Fest 2018. Overlord opens tomorrow.
Overlord is not a Cloverfield movie. Let’s just get that out of the way. The latest Bad Robot film steers clear of their big name monster franchise in favor of another kind of monster: Nazis. And not just any old Nazis (though there are plenty of those) — mad scientist Nazis, who use captured soldiers and helpless local villagers as test subjects in their horrible experiments, creating super-strong, super-grotesque mutants in hopes of building thousand-year soldiers to last their thousand-year empire. Classic Nazi stuff.
The film sets the stage with a banger of an aerial action scene, which serves to introduce the chemistry between our soon-to-be-whittled team of American soldiers and establish the caliber of action throughout the film. That caliber is high, and as soon as one naive (and clearly not superstitious) soldier says “I hope nothing goes wrong,” of course, everything goes wrong. Engines explode, planes drop from the sky, and bullets come ripping up through the hull, tearing half the battalion to shreds in a matter of seconds. But the soldiers have a job to do, and the ones left alive parachute out of the plane into the hostile territory below, where rigged explosives and legions of Nazi soldiers lie in wait.
When all is said and done, we’re left with a small team of soldiers headed up by Wyatt Russell’s grizzled explosives expert, the resident loud-mouth (John Magaro), and the heart and soul of the operation, Boyce (Jovan Adepo), a young man so pure of heart he literally couldn’t bring himself to kill a troublesome mouse. Their mission is simple: head to the village church and blow the radio tower in time for the Allied Forces to storm the beaches of Normandy. With the clock ticking, they make their way into the small French town, where they run across a local girl (Mathilde Ollivier) who helps them seek refuge while they plan their assault, introducing her adorable younger brother and her less adorable aunt, who was taken by the Nazis and came back from the church… changed.
It doesn’t take long before Overlord makes its way into the church and the hellscape therein, keeping the pulse-pounding action up every step of the way. Unfortunately, the film isn’t content to stay there, taking the action back to town for a second act that’s a bit too slow and underwhelming after the monstrosities revealed, and spends a bit too much time on an extra-villainous Nazi (Pilou Asbæk). You can tell he’s The Bad Guy because he’s super rapey — an unnecessary diversion and cheap ploy that uses sexual assault as a sloppy shorthand to let us know he’s the Worst of the Worst.
Fortunately these diversions are brief enough, glossed over by one seriously disturbing transformation (courtesy of the Nazis’ mysterious red syringes), and when the action picks back up again, it’s non-stop over-the-top action until the credits roll. Director Julius Avery shoots the hell out of his set-pieces, establishing a strong sense of style early on (Boyce’s fall from the doomed plane is a highlight), and he sure doesn’t hold back on explosions.
The strongest criticism I can lobby at Overlord is that it seems reluctant to fully commit to the monster bit, wavering between B-movie glory and a straight up soldier story. There are flourishes of fabulously gnarly practical effects and disturbing mad scientist designs but only tastes, never a whole meal. The film also plays pretty fast and loose with the rules of its sci-fi wonders — or perhaps more accurately, it never fully establishes them in the first place, making new revelations and reveals feel flimsier than they should.
But for a movie about Nazi mutants, Overlord admirably has something to say. Buried beneath the bloodshed and cast chemistry, the film is about how far we’re willing to go at war. Do we become “just as rotten as they are,” as their commanding officer orders? Or do we strive for honorable victory in the face of certain defeat? It could have just been a badass B-movie about fucking up Nazis, but Overlord strives for something more amidst the carnage. It also fucks up a lot of Nazis, and that’s pretty great too.