For some people, labeling a film as a B-movie is a crushing bit of condescension, but for others, it’s high praise and an implicit recommendation. Between directing blockbusters like Star Trek and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams has spent the last few years eagerly embracing the latter point of view, producing outright B-movies through his company Bad Robot. Beginning with the found-footage monster movie Cloverfield, and continuing on with its spiritual successors 10 Cloverfield Lane and The Cloverfield Paradox, Abrams has used lower-budgeted genre mashups to let new and upcoming filmmakers hone their chops, mostly resulting in some entertaining films.
Bad Robot’s latest film, Overlord, continues in the exact same vein. The sophomore feature film of Australian director Julius Avery (following 2014’s Son of a Gun) tells the story of a World War II mission that goes horribly awry when a group of US soldiers discover what can best be described as a group of Nazi zombies. It’s bombastic and gory, and it delivers on the total absurdity of that basic premise. But it’s actually an impressively polished film, filled with standout visual sequences and some quality performances that turn the film into something much more than the sum of its parts. It’s big, nerve-wracking, and utterly ridiculous at times — but it is a hell of a lot of fun along the way.
The film follows a squad of soldiers sent into Nazi-occupied France just hours before D-Day. Their mission is to blow up a key transmitter so German forces can’t radio in a warning about the big attack. But before the squad’s plane reaches their drop point, it’s strafed with enemy fire. Most of the soldiers are killed, and the few who survive set out to accomplish the mission on their own. Among them is Boyce (The Leftovers’ Jovan Adepo), a fresh-faced soldier who has yet to truly grapple with the consequences of war; Ford (Kurt Russell’s son Wyatt Russell), a grizzled veteran who’s willing to do whatever is necessary to complete the mission; and Tibbet (John Magaro), a seen-it-all smartass with a quip ready for every occasion.
They’re familiar archetypes, and as the first half of the film unfurls, it’s a pretty standard-issue war movie. With the help of rebellious French native Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), the paratroopers make it to the city that houses the transmitter, where they hide from the nefarious Nazi officer Wafner (Game of Thrones’ Pilou Asbæk). But things go awry as the GIs discover that the church is the home base for something much more sinister than a radio transmitter — and they are the only ones who can stop it before the Normandy invasion.
That plot summary glosses over a significant chunk of Overlord’s story, in deference to the J.J. Abrams mystery box. But going in blind is undoubtedly the best way to enjoy this movie. Nothing Overlord does is particularly novel — the WWII sequences, the character banter, the moral questions, the horror of its second half — but it excels in sheer visceral execution. Overlord is an impressive directorial statement from a confident filmmaker who can handle dynamic action sequences and ratchet up tension like an action and horror veteran. The harrowing opening sequence sets the tone, with Boyce and the rest of his squad desperate to parachute out of their plane even as it’s ripped to pieces around them. The inspiration is obviously the gut-wrenching opening of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, but Avery amps up the story with the sensibilities of a modern video game. The message is clear: Yes, this ride is going to be over the top, but we’re still going to take it extremely seriously.
And for the rest of its runtime, that’s exactly what Overlord does. The script by Billy Ray (The Hunger Games) and Mark L. Smith (The Revenant) is efficient and solid, giving most of the characters their own moments, and adding plenty of colorful exchanges. It calls to mind the stronger work of writer-director Shane Black, with Overlord providing a much better template for a good genre-infused “men on a mission” tale than Black did in his recent take on The Predator.
Magaro’s Tibbet is the strongest example, popping off the screen with constant one-liners and digs at his fellow soldiers. Russell dials down the aw-shucks charm he’s shown in previous roles, instead echoing the world-weariness his father demonstrated in John Carpenter’s The Thing (a clear spiritual cousin to Overlord). Ollivier demonstrates strength and resilience, though ultimately, her character is more of a prop to create tension for others in some extraordinarily tired and regressive ways, rather than someone with her own agency and destiny. But this is Jovan Adepo’s film, and his character, Boyce, represents some of the best aspects of the movie.
His performance is wonderful. Optimistic and principled in the beginning, Boyce is shocked by the horror of what he discovers in the mysterious church compound that houses the Nazi transmitter. The film revolves around his turn from neophyte to hardened soldier. Early on, Overlord practically states outright that its big moral question will be whether people have to stoop to their enemies’ level in order to beat them. For Boyce, that plays out in a number of ways, including a point where he tries to pull Ford back from torturing an enemy soldier. While the results don’t turn out the way Boyce hoped, his own moral compass sees him through the entire ordeal of this film. He’s the perfect audience surrogate, mapping the kind of emotional journey that’s crucial to grounding a B-movie like Overlord.
Boyce’s presence feels like its own form of social commentary. The real-world history of how America treated its African-American soldiers in World War II is deplorable, but Overlord never mentions race. That could be interpreted as a thematic statement against the Nazi mission of a “thousand-year Reich,” as Wafner puts it, but if so, it’s never clearly stated. It seems more like a free-wheeling creative choice than a statement, much like the movie’s use of Nazis as a convenient villain.
Given the current political climate, however, and how foregrounded issues of racism and anti-Semitism are in 2018, the film’s comic-book take on Nazis does begin to feel like a missed opportunity, if not a misstep. There is escapist joy in Overlord, without a doubt, and it’s obviously inspired more by World War II movies than the real world — but this might not be the right time to portray murderous white supremacists as some long-ago, over-the-top horror-movie threat.
But disentangling the film from the current political and cultural climate, Overlord is a shocking, thrilling B-movie ride that works on its own level. It’s worth mentioning that, while it is most definitely not a Cloverfield film as was once assumed, it almost certainly could have been. There’s a vague, passing reference to the idea that some sort of power or energy exists in the land beneath the small town in France that is crucial to the Nazis’ secret mission. A single additional line linking that to some sort of asteroid or meteor would establish a plausible Cloverfield link, but fortunately, Abrams and Avery didn’t end up slapping on a last-minute connection the way they did with Cloverfield Paradox. There are already too many interconnected movies these days; too many cinematic universes, when what the world really needs is more films that can stand on their own. Overlord has its faults, but it’s a studio-budgeted B-movie that does exactly that.