A men-on-a-mission WWII picture that morphs into a monster-movie bloodbath, Julius Avery’s Overlord imagines yet another mad-science scheme hatched by Nazi researchers for whom destroying entire classes of undesirable people wasn’t quite evil enough. Pairing some of the spirit of schlocky Nazi-sploitation fare with a top-flight young cast and better-than-solid filmmaking, the movie is more mainstream that the midnight fare it sounds like on paper, if only by a bit. Horror fans should cheer, as will admirers of the ensemble’s up-and-coming cast.
Jovan Adepo (The Leftovers, Fences) stars as Private Boyce. A paratrooper who three months ago was a civilian, his first mission is to drop in behind enemy lines and pave the way for the Normandy landings, knocking out a radio antenna that the Germans have placed atop an old French church. He’s going to find a lot more than soldiers there.
Super-gory Nazi-fighting action.
(History sticklers may be annoyed that Boyce and the team’s sergeant are black men, despite the fact that American troops in this war were racially segregated. In press notes, producer J.J. Abrams pleads artistic license: “Although there might not have been black soldiers mixed into a unit like this in real life, there weren’t any monsters lurking under churches either.”)
Boyce and his comrades are engaging in nervous pre-jump chatter and speculating about the newcomer in their midst — the explosives expert Ford (Wyatt Russell) — when their plane comes under heavy fire and is half-destroyed before anybody can parachute out of it. By the time they land, only a handful of soldiers remain, and Ford is now the highest-ranking among them. They proceed toward the French village, coming across a local (Mathilde Ollivier’s Chloe) who soon becomes their confederate.
Hiding in Chloe’s house as they regroup, the men encounter two kinds of threats — the expected, from a Nazi officer (Pilou Asbaek) who has forced Chloe into an ongoing sexual arrangement, and the very unexpected: Chloe’s aunt, whom she describes as “very sick,” is horrifically disfigured, foreshadowing the poor souls we’ll meet in labs below the town’s church.
When a bit of adventure places Boyce in the back of a cargo truck that enters the bunker, we focus on his face through the long scenes in which he explores a ghastly scene. Pieces of bodies that should be dead call out in pain; heavy zippered body bags contain gallons of goo and people begging “Help me, please.” Townfolk, we’ll learn, have been guinea pigs in experiments to make supermen. A thousand-year Reich, after all, demands thousand-year, immortal soldiers.
When Boyce brings news of all this back to the soldiers’ hideout, Ford takes charge, trying to beat secrets out of a Nazi prisoner and evincing more than a little of the macho, B-movie charisma that made his dad, Kurt Russell, a favorite of several generations of fanboys. Soft-spoken, the generous Boyce is the movie’s moral center, but Ford muscles his way into the alpha role, and nobody seems to mind. The ensemble is quite well balanced, with John Magaro bringing wisecracking charm to a very familiar role; the film gets lots of mileage out of his interactions with Chloe’s cute kid brother Paul (Gianny Taufer).
As the team moves in on the laboratory and the radio tower above it, Avery balances the truly disgusting with more comic-book-like action. A serum the Nazis have developed can reanimate corpses and make them grotesque fighting machines; hair-raising chase scenes give way, eventually, to over-the-top battles that once or twice elicit (probably unintended) laughs. Still, the movie’s tone holds together, with the lurid colors of opening scenes (the cinematic equivalent of a gory, pre-code war comic book) setting the stage for heightened action to come. Closing credits riff on 1940s aesthetics, imagining a world in which this story really occurred — but was kept out of the historical record by men who knew that Germany’s better-publicized crimes were already too shocking for the world to digest.
Production company: Bad Robot
Cast: Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Pilou Asbaek, Mathilde Ollivier, John Magaro, Iain de Caestecker, Gianny Taufer
Director: Julius Avery
Screenwriters: Billy Ray, Mark L. Smith
Producers: J.J. Abrams, Lindsey Weber
Executive producers: Jo Burn, Jon Cohen, Cory Bennett Lewis
Director of photography: Laurie Rose, Fabian Wagner
Production designer: Jon Henson
Costume designer: Anna B. Sheppard
Editor: Matt Evans
Composer: Jed Kurzel
Casting director: Theo Park
Venue: Fantastic Fest
Rated R, 110 minutes