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Non-Review Review: Overlord

Overlord is a film that works a lot better in concept than in does in execution.

The idea of constructing a pulpy monster narrative around Nazi atrocities during the Second World War has a certain appeal to it. Not only does it evoke the sort of trashy fiction that that often existed at the margins of popular culture, but it also suggests the speculative lenses through which audiences process trauma, the way in which mass media filters horrors almost beyond human comprehension into something tangible and visceral, creating an uncanny and uncomfortable prism through which anxieties over these horrors might be channeled.

Russelling up some fun.

The horrors inflicted by the Nazis are almost impossible to fully comprehend; the systemic brutality inflicted upon those marginalised groups under their authority, the destruction that they wrought across Europe. These traumas linger in the popular memory. While the reality of those atrocities must never be forgotten or downplayed, there is something very powerful in the idea of translating that to the screen through the cinematic language of horror. Like Wolfenstein, Overlord seems to suggest an impressionistic portrait of the horrors of the period.

This approach is intriguing, and there are moments when Overlord works very well, when the film is creepy and unsettling in all the ways that it should be creepy and unsettling. However, the film suffers greatly when the script tries to impose a familiar framework on these horrors, when it runs through the checklist of storybeats expected for a major modern cinematic release. Put simply, Overlord works best when it aspires to be Captain America: The First Avenger, but as a horror film” and it works worst when it just tries to be Captain America: The First Avenger.

I want to take his face… off.

To be fair, Overlord has a number of very basic low-level issues even before getting to the larger structural problems with the film. Most obviously, the dialogue is terrible, reading like somebody’s first draft bad impression of tough-guy retro banter. At one point, the battle-scarred Corporal Ford advises his panicked and inexperienced colleague Private Boyce, “If you keep talking about dead bodies, you’re going to end up one.” When Boyce worries about the friends lost in an early parachute jump, Ford simply offers his age-old wisdom, “Friends die.”

The dialogue that comes from Corporal Ford is awful, to the point that it occasionally seems like it might be the point; that Ford might be written as a conscious parody of the forties tough-guy archetype. However, actor Wyatt Russell never reads the dialogue in that manner, never suggests that level to the character. Russell delivers every bad-ass line with an approximation of the same grit that made his father such a cult figure, which is no small accomplishment. Indeed, it makes the audience yearn for Russell to work with stronger material.

The Brexit Trade Mission goes well.

Still, the dialogue is not as big an issue as it might be. While a lot of the issues with Overlord can be traced back to a clumsy by-the-numbers-but-no-more script from Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith, the film benefits greatly from direction of Julius Avery. Avery brings a heightened and frenetic quality to Overlord which serves it well, very similar to the very disjointed but effective approach that Jordan Vogt-Roberts brought to Kong: Skull Island. Although Overlord leans a little bit too heavily into computer-generated effects, Avery creates and maintains a compelling sense of momentum.

Overlord works best when it plays the Second World War as a horror movie. Taking its cues from Dunkirk, the opening sequence features a brutal and chaotic parachute jump that captures the sense of random violence and arbitrary destruction that defines a war on that scale. Some of the most haunting imagery within Overlord comes long before the film gets to any gothic castle or creepy catacombs; broken and battered bodies of parachute jumpers dangled in the limbs of trees, backlit by the eerie orange glow of fires burning in wreckage.

On the release slate.

In fact, it is telling that Overlord keeps coming back to these images, even once things heighten in the second act. The opening set piece features a character tangled in his own shoot, struggling to breath after landing in a lake. He gasps and he wrestles, but the audience feels like level of suffocation. This horror is directly mirrored during a later sequence inside a creepy Nazi laboratory, when that same soldier finds suffocating victims tied up in sheets, struggling to breath through them.

Overlord works best during these extended nightmarish stream-of-consciousness sequences, when Avery is able to keep the camera (and the audience) tightly focused on the visceral experiences of Private Boyce. The opening act operates largely on the tension and anxiety as Boyce tries to stay alive amid a cacophony of chaos, and the second act features an extended sequences in which Boyce wanders into a laboratory packed with monstrous experiments and nonsensical brutality.

Check its dogtags.

Bouncing from idea-to-idea, the film has an endearing randomness, which reflects Boyce’s own reaction to everything that he is seeing. Boyce has no frame of reference for severed heads that can still express themselves or mutated zombies locked in concrete boxes, but the audience understands the familiar genre framework around this. As a result, the film works best when it avoids over-explaining itself or over-signposting its plot, in order to keep the audience on their tows and off-balance.

There’s a powerful thematic resonance to all of this, the presentation of Nazi policy as something literally monstrous. Overlord returns time and again to the idea of the regime literally dehumanising its victims. When the American troops discover what is happening at the castle, they also discover that these experiments are being conducted on the marginalised and the weak. One of Boyce’s friends even articulates this anxiety before the jump. “What do you think the Germans are going to do if they find a guy named Rosenfeld?” he asks. The audience already knows.

Hanging out.

Indeed, there’s something very effective in the decision to focus Overlord so tightly on an African American soldier like Boyce. When Boyce wanders into the German compound to witness the horrors first hand, there’s a palpable anxiety. Boyce is black, and so cannot pass. He cannot dress himself up in a Nazi uniform like Indiana Jones might in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. There is no chance that Boyce can disguise himself, and the blonde-haired Corporal Ford might be able to do from a distance.

These sequences repeatedly and effectively remind the audience of the horrors conduct by the Nazi regime, even if Overlord is smart enough to avoid directly entangling itself with the particulars of the Holocaust. While the magical red formula that drives the experiments in Overlord is entirely fictional, the horrific experiments conducted in the film are not too far removed from those conducted by people like Mengele or Strughold in real life. There is a power in presenting that level of horror on a purely visceral level.

Private concerns.

Unfortunately, Overlord is more than just a series of horrific stream-of-consciousness set pieces. The film has a story, and that story serves to box the narrative in. Overlord works best when it embraces the brutal chaos of war, and works least well when the script steps in to over-explain absolutely everything. Indeed, Overlord seems to insist on imposing a modern blockbuster structure atop this more unsettling and uncomfortable foundation. As haunting as those extended sequences might be, Overlord always has a neat and rational answer waiting for the audience.

This is most obvious in the decision to saddle the American troops in Overlord with a “fate of the world” objective. These soldiers trapped behind enemy lines are naturally tasked with a mission. However, Overlord insists that it is the most important mission. It is not enough for these heroes to confront monstrous evil, they have to also single-handedly save the D-Day landings. Naturally, the sinister laboratory at the heart of Overlord is built atop a transmitter that is jamming communications that the Allies need to coordinate the landings.

In the neck of time.

This is a very weird narrative for the D-Day landings, with the fate of the world coming down to a handful of young men rather than a larger coordinated effort. More than that, Overlord insists on hammering this plot point home to the audience repeatedly. There are moments when Corporal Ford seems like nothing more than a sentient alarm clock, counting down how long is left; two hours, one hour, twenty minutes. It all feels like a very conventional paint-by-numbers way of generating tension. It feels like something from a superhero movie more than a horror film.

This tonal tension is compounded by the climax of the film, which builds towards a very strange rehash of Captain America: The First Avenger, wherein two superpowered characters slug it out with one another atop a ticking time bomb. Overlord even finds a suitably comic book villain towards the climax of the movie, who doses himself up on magical serum and helpfully explains the fact that “a thousand year Reich needs a thousand year soldiers” in order to help them “take over the world.”

Strictly formula.

As Overlord grinds on, the film surrenders itself to increasingly lazy plotting and trite sentimentality. At one point, a syringe filled with ominous red liquid remains on the floor of an attic for about half-an-hour, until it becomes conveniently useful again. At another point, a heated firefight embroils an adorable (and precocious) little boy who might (just might) be able to crack the tough exterior of the squadron’s resident hard-ass. All of this is very simple out-of-the-box storytelling, which jars with the parts of Overlord that do work.

This is a shame, because there are parts of Overlord that belong in a much better movie.

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2 Responses

  1. That’s too bad. I love Iain De Caestecker so I wanted to see this film for him. I might wait for DVD.

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