Fantastic Fest Review: Julius Avery's WWII Horror Thriller 'Overlord'
by Jeremy Kirk
September 23, 2018
The horrors of war have rarely found their way into big-budget horror, even though it seems a natural fit to set genre pictures during the most horrendous moments in human history. These have often been relegated to lower-budget efforts often with unsuccessful results. Those days may be close to over, as Overlord, the latest from J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot production label, blasts its way onto screens. Set during the moments just before D-Day, the film offers an intense and explosive men-on-a-mission tale but with the added bonus of supernatural horrors. One side of the film's genre coin works much better than the other, but Overlord is through-and-through a thrilling action movie that should satiate action fans as well as horror fans alike.
The story, co-written by Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith from a story originally by Billy Ray, centers on a group of paratroopers who have landed in Nazi-occupied France the night before the fateful storming of Normandy. Their difficult mission is to take down a communications tower in order to aid the Allies in the Normandy invasion, itself a difficult task with little hope of success.
It isn't long before the group of paratroopers is whittled down to only a few men, and their mission becomes even more of an obstacle when they stumble upon a secret lab the Nazis have constructed. What the German troops are undertaking in the lab becomes a separate mission altogether, and the group of soldiers must overcome the near-impossible odds of destroying the tower, as well as escaping with their very souls intact.
Filmmaker Julius Avery, who made waves with his feature debut Son of a Gun in 2014, directs this WWII film, and, while the intense, emotional drama has been left behind this time, the director's hand at filming high-octane thrills is still well on display. Overlord's opening moments feature all the intensity of the iconic opening sequence in Saving Private Ryan but from a paratrooper's perspective here. Once boots touch the ground, however, the suspense rarely lets up as the French countryside is littered with not only German soldiers but well-placed mines. It's an introduction to the story that grips your attention and hardly lets go for the following 90 minutes.
While Overlord is technically listed as a horror film, that aspect to the film seems almost ancillary. The small group of soldiers who do make it to the village in the vicinity of the communications tower stumble upon the presence of Nazi scientists and the mysterious lab rather quickly, but the purpose of that lab and the horrors that lay within take a long time making their presence known. The events in Overlord do eventually delve into more horrific territory, but the promise of full-scale, supernatural insanity never comes to fruition to the extent that one would hope.
Instead of becoming full-on horror, the film rips the viewer from action set piece to action set piece, all of which are commendably produced and displayed, the promise of maximum carnage coming in the way of bullet barrages and massive explosions. What could have been a rip-roaring, monster feature seems more interested in being a fast-paced action movie with suitably awesome imagery. For that alone, Overlord is worth watching, but one can't help but wonder how gloriously insane the events depicted could have been.
Still, the film ends up being a tremendous amount of fun, most notably due to the impressive turns by lead actors Jovan Adepo and Wyatt Russell. The former plays the lead with commendable reluctance, his character relying more on a nervous will to survive and help others than unstoppable badass. That's more Russell's territory, and, though the actor's appearance and mannerisms can't help but remind the viewer of his father, Kurt Russell, he makes this individual character his own and impresses well enough to keep the viewer on the lookout for future turns from him.
What could have been a riot of insanity with World War II suspense and splendid, monster-based horror instead ends up being satisfied with only delivering top-notch action. That aspect to Overlord delivers in abundance to the point the viewer almost wishes the film sat in grounded action for its full length rather than delving into the supernatural. Still, Overlord is through-and-through an entertaining action-horror feature that brings about a hope that we get more films like this in the future.
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