As long has exploitation films have existed, they have been commenting on the culture of their respective eras - even if they utilized ultra violence and explosions as the delivery system. Given the current political and social climate, and the recent surge of white supremacy in the United States, it makes sense that JJ Abrams would give his support to an exploitation throwback which has no problem doling out cathartic carnage to some nazis. On that level alone, Overlord is a success - but the WW2 action-horror hybrid has more to offer than that may suggest.
Young, scared, and unprepared - that’s the state of most of the soldiers who are about to jump out of an airplane over Nazi occupied France as part of Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. All hell breaks loose when the plane is turned to Swiss cheese by German anti-aircraft fire and they are forced to dive early. The only survivors are the green Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo), cocky bully Private Tibbet (John Magaro), Private Chase (Iain De Caestecker), and the stoic and mysterious Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell). They find each other in the chaos and work to complete their mission of taking out a comm tower in a nearby church. With the aide of a local woman Claire (Mathilde Ollivier), the team infiltrate the village and quickly realize that the Nazis have something far more sinister and unnatural at work.
While these characters are your typical archetypes for this sort of story, the script from Billy Ray and the spot on performances ensure that we come to care about their fates nonetheless. This is especially true when it comes to the performances. Wyatt Russell is for sure channelling his legendary father Kurt here (specifically as MacReady in The Thing) as he communicates earned confidence and cynicism with little more than a glance, but his turn is not mere imitation as he manages to make the character his own. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Boyce is our hero and Jovan Adepo is more than up to the task. Simply put, this is a star-making performance. He sells the desperation of being in this hell of war with ease, and when he finds his resolve and strength it’s very affecting. And lastly there’s French newcomer Mathilde Ollivier who serves as the heart of the film and gets the two most badass moments in the thing. If there’s any justice, we’ll be seeing a lot of her in the coming years.
While Overlord is not technically part of the Cloverfield universe, it is in the sense that it’s a lean and mean genre film from an up and coming director. In this case that director is Julius Avery, who - like Matt Reeves, Dan Trachtenberg, and Julius Onah before him - is clearly a super talented filmmaker who is sure to have an exciting career ahead of them. Avery has a fairly remarkable handle of the tone here, what could easily become either exceedingly dour or too absurd is instead just a damn good time with legitimate stakes. He is equally deft at the action and horror elements, the former is hard hitting and well-staged while the latter is tense and unsettling. Overlord is more artfully shot that it needed to be, thanks to dual cinematographers Laurie Rose and Fabian Wagner. A shot of a soldier bursting through a waterlogged parachute is particularly striking.
One thing that’s unexpected is just how gory and brutal this is for a mainstream film. And unlike many modern movies, there’s plenty of effort made to do things as practically as possible. This is especially obvious with the excellent creature effects which are very cool and very gross. As much as this film is homaging exploitation films, there are many other apparent inspirations to be found - from Thing-esque body horror, to production design that is reminiscent of the Wolfenstein video game series, and even some splashes of the work game auteur Hideo Kojima.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the joy of seeing Nazi soldiers and officers being dispatched with aplomb. It seems odd to say that it’s refreshing to see Nazis being treated without empathy, but here we are. In the end, Overlord does nothing to reinvent the wheel, but it doesn’t have to. It knows exactly what it is and it’s a hell of an effective remix of the movies and games it draws inspiration from. Plus, like I said, Nazis get turned to bloody pulp - and damnit, it’s satisfying.