A few weeks ago, yes I've been a bit busy, I went and saw the film Overlord with a friend of mine. Billed as a WWII horror film, it generated a lot of buzz as it was helmed by a black actor in a WWII film. This, in and of itself, was rather remarkable. Black characters in horror movies have a stereotype of being quickly killed or reduced to secondary characters. With this trend being more reversed in recent years, it was understandable that this film should seem like it would bring something new to the table.
A firm WWII setting seemed like it would generate some good visuals, and theories ranged from Nazi zombies, to something set in the same universe as Cloverfield. With the film being produced by well known sci-fi personality J. J. Abrams, this wasn't an unrealistic probability. Soon we learned it was an independent production.
So did Overlord overwhelm me like Operation Overlord overwhelmed the Nazis?
Well, it mostly did.
The film opens in daylight, and we see that a stunning amount of the CGI budget must have gone towards these opening shots. We get lovingly rendered shots of the invasion fleet moving across the Channel to invade Fortress Europe, as the paratroopers fly overhead towards their objective.
Bear with me here, I'm going to be putting on my pedantic historian's hat a few times. Choosing to blow lots of CGI money on this scene feels really weird. Not only does it not make sense (the paratroopers would have been flying over at night, well in advance of the invasion fleet) but it causes some weird disjointedness in the film's timeline. It really seems like a bizarre waste of money, but ah well.
On the plane our main characters are all progressively introduced. The oft derided and ill thought of Ed Boyce (our black protagonist), the far too talkative Jacob Rosenfeld, the horrendously stereotyped Italian-American Tibbet, the no-nonsense Corporal Ford who is attached to make sure the paratroopers objective goes smoothly, the forgettable Dawson, random photographer Morton Chase and the strangely compelling Sergeant Eldson.
Boyce is something of an enigma, but comes off as wishy-washy at first. Sgt. Eldson (played by Bokeem Woodbine) comes off as the much more interesting character. Tragically, the movie plays for keeps and the plane is soon blown out of the sky, many of the paratroopers along with it. In a truly well choreographed scene, Boyce is falling until he hits a patch of water and has to cut himself loose. He meets up with Ford, just in time to watch Eldson get whacked by the Nazis. Which is a crying shame, but does show that the film is not going to give anyone any mercy if they can avoid it.
The survivors of the crash landing, Boyce, Ford, Tibbet, Chase, and Dawson, regroup and make towards their objective. A radio tower where the Nazis could call in strikes on the landing beaches.
This motley crew overcomes further horrors of war as Dawson, in an unexpectedly hilarious death scene, steps on a landmine after perfectly finishing a sentence. I have to admit, the accidental punctuation made me laugh uproariously, largely because it was such a scene of unintentional black comedy I couldn't help it.
Despite this, I found the opening a little weak, as the characters meandered around and talked to no real end. It seemed like random explosions intermixed with somewhat pointless dialogue.
Moving on they stumble across a French villager, Chloe, who is scavenging the battlefield, and force her to lead them to the village. There they take cover while accidentally stumbling upon SS Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Wafner. He's actually an amazing villain, with the right amount of sneering Nazi contempt and unbridled violence which will make you love and hate him.
We learn not all is as it seems in this village. It is a radio tower sure, but the Nazis have a strange lab beneath the church where they have been steadily experimenting on the villagers to mysterious ends. Corpses and villagers go in, and only occasionally do diseased people come back out. One of those includes Mathilde's aunt who she keeps separate from her young brother Paul.
From here the movie moves between a somewhat confusing genre of action and horror. In a series of events which I don't think re-watching will explain, Boyce stumbles into the Nazi base by accident while he is supposed to be doing something completely different. Boyce seems to have a horrendous instinct for self preservation which at times made me sure he was going to die. However, it does lead to some of our creepier moments early on in the film.
I say that the genre is confusing because for all the horror elements, most seem to hit the notes of either a spy thriller or a war drama. There is one or two points where the soundtrack assaults your ears to scare you, but nothing in the film ever really made me jump. We have some legitimately creepy visuals in the Nazi labs, and a bizarre scene early in the film where they talk about the decomposing corpse of a 'jackal' but that never leads to anything.
Considering the precise nature of what the Nazis are doing is never really elaborated on, that isn't too surprising.
What did surprise me was how bloody fantastic the effects were. From the blood, to the bullets, and the firefights, it was A-list movie cinematics. All the gunfights were amazingly put together, and the gory effects of those (and the monsters) were gory and great. I was literally clapping during some scenes these fights were so awesome. An amazing scene where Chloe picks up a flamethrower was also well appreciated.
The scenes where the action picks up are what makes the movie shine. Considering the slow opening these intense and visceral scenes make you really appreciate both the actors and the effects. It leads to a climax which is immensely satisfying.
I found the movie good fun, but there were some points I found weird.
First let me put my pedantic historians hat on. At one point Boyce says he was drafted, and that's how he became a paratrooper. Not only is that blatantly false, but its doing a disservice to historic paratroopers who firstly had to volunteer for service, then they had to volunteer for dangerous service, and then had to volunteer for the intense paratrooper training.
Second, I think the film did a greater disservice by making some historical revisions to incoporate Boyce and Eldson into the 101st Airborne. If you've ever seen the amazing HBO drama Band of Brothers you'll know that the 101st Airborne circa 1944, was all white. They were a unit of volunteers famous for being the tip of the spear in the Allied landings. Why the film chooses to do this strikes me as odd, this is especially true because doing some research I discovered there were black paratroopers in WWII, the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion. Though they did not directly see combat, they were a parachute unit.
The film would have done itself a far better service had it made those men the focus of the film. Cooler still had there been a few survivors who found themselves drafted into the mission against the tower because Ford pulls rank and uses them to accomplish his mission instead of one they were originally assigned. The film would be arguably stronger, the interaction between characters more interesting and the historical revisionism to pull it off slightly better.
Historic pedantry aside, the final shots of the film give us an interesting question. Why didn't the navy shell the bloody church? Or hell, someone just drop a bomb on it? Sure civilian casualties, but if it was so important (and so close to the beach) that wouldn't have saved it from Allied planners. The final shots of the film show the whole village as being really close to the beaches, sending paratroopers was a huge bloody waste here.
That aside there were scenes where the day/night dynamic suffered. The film opens in broad daylight, but minutes later its the middle of the night. There are scenes in Chloe's house where its clearly daytime outside, but then we see the night when they look out. It was a baffling failure in editing. Just goes to show why you don't blow your money showing an invasion fleet.
This all being said, the acting was great,
Jovan Adepo as Boyce really matures into his role. The script left his character flailing, but Adepo did a wonderful job building him up as the film wore on. Mathilde Oliver as Chloe is just badass. She is multilingual (without it feeling forced) and handles herself amazingly in action scenes, and it never feels like she's being molded into a role just for the sake of being a strong female character, she just is a strong female character from start to finish.
Wyatt Russel as Ford is also fantastic. His gritty "gotta-be-bad-as-'em-to-beat-'em" attitude (implied to have been picked up fighting the Nazis in Italy) is well done, with its logical flaws pointed out. His single-minded drive to complete the mission, no matter the cost makes you love and fear him.
John Magaro as Tibbet is really fun, but he plays too much of a stereotyped Italian-American. Almost like the William Guarnere stand in from Band of Brothers. But he is a fun character.
All this being said, I came away really liking the movie. There were enough parts where the action and the characters were simply awesome enough that getting behind them was absurdly easy, and with a villain I loved to hate I couldn't get enough of seeing the SS mowed down. Though the horror elements were weird, I found it engaging.
Despite a slow build up, the film redeems itself in the end and really delivers A-list quality to B-list material. As a fun action flick, this is hard to beat and I will certainly be watching it again.