WWII airborne GIs prepare to parachute behind enemy lines. We are introduced to them between volleys in the bombardment and see their fear behind the bravado. We sense their dread at stepping out the door. We know that nothing can prepare them for what they are about to face.
Then, in one fluid, effects-laden shot, a paratrooper drops through the sky, surrounded by explosions and aerial carnage, grasping desperately to pull his chute. Ten minutes in, you’re already rooting for the film’s hero to just survive.
Overlord is the rare genre crossover film that succeeds stupendously on both of its narrative levels at once. The JJ Abrams produced film offers a compelling vision combined with absolutely stellar filmmaking, while making you genuinely care about the fate of its cast, even though you know they won’t all live to the end.
The stage is set with that triumphant opening sequence, set on the eve of D-Day and assaulting the viewer’s senses in a fashion that might make Saving Private Ryan’s Spielberg envious. The timing of this military action seems to trigger in our thoughts that any mission so staged might be a suicide mission. And unlike other recent war movies, the film uses none of the muted pallet others have seemingly embraced, and the vivid colors make the experience all the more realistic.
Yet Overlord carefully suggests to audiences that all will not be as it should. Early scenes introduce characters whose ethnicity in their military capacity is anachronistic. For those who may be unsuspecting, this clue suggests that not everything that we may see will be… ‘historically accurate’.
The survivors of the air-drop have only a matter of hours to locate and destroy a Nazi radio tower atop a church in northern France. Their approach to the village in which it operates poses hazards of its own, and viewers should be prepared for sudden violence – but then again, that should be expected of any war movie.
What isn’t as expected is the careful crafting of each character, providing them with nuances that transcend mere stereotypes (though the one soldier from Brooklyn lives up to the latter). A soldier who couldn’t kill a mouse faces “them or me” decisions. A corporal who clearly has seen the worst side of the enemy develops to much affinity for their methods. The Nazi commandant shifts disquietingly from suave seducer to violent sociopath.
We aren’t seeing archetypes here, we are seeing human beings develop on screen. As the corporal whose behaviors become a concern for his troop, Wyatt Russell channels the energy of his father’s tough guy heroes while showing traces of lingering humanity beneath.
Jovan Adepo takes the lead role as Pvt. Boyce, whose ability to obey orders is a bit suspect, and leads to a startling discovery in the bowels of the church where the Nazi are holed up. What becomes a necessary mission to aid the Allies becomes a crucial one for humanity to prevent the legitimate possibility that the thousand-year Reich will be led by the same individuals now as in the next millennium.
The film balances gallows humor well and though it relies a bit too much on our societally ingrained dislike of Nazis, it equips its villain (Pilou Asbæk) with some menacing characteristics that only become heightened when the special effects kick in. And director Julius Avery makes some absolute movie magic with a carefully constructed fictional reality in the forested foothills of France, seamlessly blending special effects and set design with downright audacity.
the real hero here are the screenwriters though. Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith don’t rush getting into the meat of things, spending quality time with the US troops and their French ally, and letting the relationships develop. A lesser film would have sacrificed runtime to get to the twist, but Overlord isn’t interested in doing that. It is less interested in churning your guts with gore, than having you vested in who gets their due and when.
Overlord isn’t just a random B-movie entertainment, it is an unexpected A-quality masterwork. That the film was somehow overlooked by audiences upon release is a something that shall likely soon be remedied.