Overlord (2018)

NOVEMBER 8, 2018

GENRE: MAD SCIENTIST, SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (IMAX SCREENING)

In a bit of irony, Paramount has played up Overlord's horror aspects in its marketing, despite the fact that it actually spends more time on its war plot than anything that'd feature in Fangoria, offering a rare case of the money people saying "It IS a horror movie!" Not that it's NOT horror at all - it's just that those elements are not featured as heavily as one might expect from the trailers, which showcases all of them and sets them to ACDC's "Hell's Bells" to give the impression that this is some balls out crazy action/horror blend in the vein of the Resident Evil films (or, to stick with AC/DC, Maximum Overdrive!). In reality, the genre elements are barely even hinted at for the first half of the film, and even once they are the war plot is still very much the focus - the Nazi zombie monsters are just another thing they have to deal with as they attempt to complete their mission.

The mission is basically straight out of a Call of Duty game level - after their plane is partially blown up in flight, the four survivors of a WWII squad are hellbent on completing their objective: destroying a signal-blocking tower that will prevent US naval ships from communicating as they head toward the beaches on D-Day. As with the COD games (at least the ones I've played), there's no ridiculous "go kill Hitler" kind of narrative - their mission is part of a bigger whole, and if this is somehow your first World War II movie you won't get a hell of a lot of background info on what's going (even D-Day is presented as something they figure you already know, and, not for nothing, but you should). There are some skirmishes with Nazi soldiers along the way and when they get closer to town they meet Chloe, a French woman who lost her parents and is trying to protect her little brother from the ongoing war atrocities. Not everyone makes it out, our protagonist Boyce butts head with his superior Ford re: saving lives or finishing the mission, Nazis do slimy things to innocent people... it's very much a war movie, albeit one with a smaller scope than the likes of Saving Private Ryan or Inglourious Basterds.

The horror stuff comes in later, when they get closer to the tower that they need to take out, which is perched on top of a church. Inside that church's basement is your standard evil Nazi doctor with brightly colored syringes and scary-looking operating tables, and he is working on perfecting soldiers that can last for a thousand years. Naturally, the imperfect formula means his test subjects turn into nearly invincible mutants, and a few of them cause more headaches for our group of guys. Honestly, there are no surprises left for this portion of the plot if you've seen the trailer - you'd know the formula gets used on one of our heroes, that one of them chases Chloe around, etc. There are a few one-off visuals of other experiments, like a disembodied head that can still speak (yes, there's a very good chance someone involved has seen Re-Animator), but for the most part the zombies might as well be standard Nazis on steroids for all it matters to the plot. I almost got the impression that the pitch was something akin to From Dusk Till Dawn, where there would be zero indication that this was a horror movie until it turned into one, full-stop, only for that approach to get tweaked with through development until it was a little less crazy.

I know that all sounds like I was disappointed with the film, but I wasn't - I actually had a lot of fun with it; if anything I'm more disappointed with the marketing team for spoiling so many of its surprises instead of focusing on the war plot that the movie was actually about (I suspect a low Cinemascore will be forthcoming). All of the characters were quite likable and played well by actors mostly known from television, with the exception of Wyatt Russell as Ford, who once again proves he inherited a sizable amount of his father's considerable charisma. He plays the hardass "we have to get the job done, to hell with collateral damage" type of soldier who softens a bit over the course of the movie (they're all kind of cliches, but it's a war movie, so that's to be expected), but it's impossible to ever dislike the guy, and he gets to kill most of the Nazis which makes it easy to admire him. And near the end of the film, when he's a bit banged up from the events of the movie and grunting more, he starts to look and sound like RJ MacReady a bit, so that was kind of fun.

Also I kind of liked that the horror element remained a B-story and that the A-plot was always in focus. There are a lot of horror movies set during World War II, and I noticed that unless it was a "we got a distress call from this bunker and have to check it out" story I tend to forget what exactly our heroes were there to do in the first place, as they usually have to devote all their attention to whatever supernatural threat has sprung up along the way. Given Normandy's massive importance to our eventual victory in the war, it's a good call that the Nazi monster/zombie things never overshadow their objective, or even feel like a more weighted threat. It's just part of the escalation of things that try to prevent them from taking out that tower - from crashing the plane to Nazi patrol squads to bloodthirsty creatures, nothing will stop Kurt Jr and his pals from getting the job done!

I do wish the mad science plot was slightly more inventive, however. When I realized it was just another botched super-soldier serum thing I kind of rolled my eyes a bit; granted, these kind of movies rarely see theatrical releases (in IMAX no less) so the mainstream audiences have probably not seen too many, if any at all, but I expected producer JJ Abrams to bring something a little more peculiar to the table. There's a brief scene where Royce is chased by a dog that seems a bit demonic - perhaps more of that sort of thing would have elevated this into more of a must-see. Also, early on one of our guys steps on a landmine and is presumably killed, only to be found later hooked up to one of the scientist's operating table/machine hybrids. He is freed, and you wait the whole movie for this to have a payoff, and... it doesn't. The Nazis apparently just cured him with no drawbacks? It's very odd, and adds to the feeling that someone just threw in some horror stuff at the 11th hour (or, if you want to go with conspiracy theories, had to remove Cloverfield-y plot points) instead of really fleshing it out.

But it's a good time all the same, which is all that really matters. If you're gonna sit there with a list of quotas ("I demand 10 Nazi zombies, five zombie dogs...") instead of just engaging with the movie then you're probably going to walk away disappointed. If you haven't seen the trailer at all (or somehow just saw the part that focused on the war element) you're likely to enjoy it more than those expecting a carnage-fest. It's got some terrific action beats (Royce's forced parachute deployment is astonishing) and a small but memorable group of actors who bounce well off one another (even the kid is charming instead of annoying), serving a plot that's refreshingly straightforward without being disposable. And (unfortunately) proof once again that marketing teams can fuck over their own movies by focusing on the wrong things and prepping audiences to expect a different kind of experience.

What say you?

2 comments:

  1. Hey, Brian! Love that you still get around to posting reviews after "ending" HMAD! Anyway, quick correction: the soldier Boyce rescues from the lab (Rosenthal?) is a different soldier than Dawson, who triggered the mine. Keep up the great work, good sir!

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    1. Oh! Well that... still doesn't explain why Rosenthal was saved, but at least makes more sense on some level hahahah. They even say when the guy trips the mine that he "he was there and then he wasn't" or something like that so when he "came back" (so I thought) I figured that line was more literal than previously assumed hahaha. Thanks!

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