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Overlord

Posted November 12, 2018 By Curiosity Inc.

It might be hard to remember, but there was a time when Paramount distributed four of the five movies leading up to The Avengers. Then Marvel was bought out, the MCU was permanently moved to Disney, and they’ve been kicking ass while Paramount has been in steady decline ever since.

The Paranormal Activity franchise is now more or less defunct (though we’ll see if a replacement franchise comes with A Quiet Place 2), DreamWorks packed up and moved to Universal, and a number of potential franchises (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Baywatch, G.I. Joe, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Ghost in the Shell, etc.) went nowhere. Even their once-indomitable Transformers franchise is left with an uncertain future, after diminishing returns and Michael Bay’s departure. (The only future entry that didn’t get scrapped was Bumblebee, so we’ll see how that works out.) But at least Paramount still has Star Trek and Mission: Impossible, right?

Yeah… about that.

Whether you love or hate the rebooted Star Trek films, Paramount desperately needs Bad Robot to run that franchise for them. Decades of catastrophic mismanagement have conclusively proven that Paramount cannot run Star Trek themselves. As for Mission: Impossible, there are now people of legal drinking age who weren’t alive when that franchise got started. It’s nothing short of miraculous that J.J. Abrams and Tom Cruise have kept that series alive and kicking for so long. Oh, and I guess there’s also Cloverfield — that one seems to have found a new home at Netflix, but who the hell knows with that franchise?

All of this to say that Paramount very badly needs to keep Bad Robot happy. They cannot afford to drive away the only current business partners with a proven track record of churning out viable blockbusters. As if to further prove that the Paramount execs couldn’t find their noses in a mirror unless Abrams and his team were there to draw them a portrait, we now have Overlord.

To be fair, I realize that a genre-blending war/action/sci-fi/horror movie isn’t exactly the easiest sell. And there is a kind of logic in opening a war movie on Veteran’s Day weekend. That said, this is so clearly a more experimental March release or perhaps a late summer August release — what the hell is it doing buried amid the awards contenders and holiday flicks of mid-November?!

That’s not even getting started on the trailer, which clearly spoils pretty much every major plot development in the film. It’s like the distributors were actively trying to show the entire 100-minute film in two minutes, making it look as stupid, incoherent, and disjointed as possible. The movie deserved so much better than this, and it should’ve been handled with a lot more care. Because after you’ve seen the trailer… well, there’s not much more to say except “go see it.”

The central premise concerns a half-dozen (give or take a few thousand, depending on how you count) American paratroopers dropped near a French village hours before D-Day. The gist is that there’s a Nazi radio tower nearby, jamming Allied signals, and the tower needs blowing up so air support can be deployed to the beaches at Normandy. Then comes the halfway point, when we find out that the radio tower was built on top of a super-secret lab where the Nazis have been running horrific experiments on residents of the nearby village. Chaos ensues.

Our protagonist is Ed Boyce, played by Jovan Adepo. He’s your typical everyman, drafted into the war mere months ago. He’s got an implacable sense of justice and a strong aversion to murder, both of which are of course tested as the movie progresses. From start to finish, the movie makes a very strong theme out of escalation: Against an enemy that fights dirty, resorting to monstrous tactics, conventional logic goes that the adversary can only be defeated by someone willing to be as evil and unconscionable as they are. War is hell, after all. Yet the filmmakers reject this logic in their own subtle and action-packed way, and it’s greatly satisfying to watch.

Then we have Mathilde Ollivier in the role of Chloe. She’s a French civilian living under German occupation who helps our American paratroopers in their mission. I’m loathe to go into detail, but suffice to say that Chloe has to be one of the most badass, proactive, well-rounded, exemplary female leads I’ve seen in recent memory. Outstanding work, especially from such a marvelous new actress.

Then we have Corporal Ford, played by Wyatt Russell. He’s the de facto leader of this mission, and also our resident hardass who’s seen so many terrors in war that he’s actively wishing to die in battle rather than go on living with his copious baggage. I am so glad that Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn blessed us with this particular offspring, because it means that we can finally let go of Charlie Hunnam and Scott Eastwood. Russell is the actor that they aspired to be without even knowing it.

And of course we have our cannon fodder. Iain de Castecker is on hand as a meek army photographer. John Magaro plays an abrasive loudmouthed sniper. Dominic Applewhite’s character somehow knows he’s a redshirt and he’s insufferably nervous about it. Jacob Anderson is on hand as a soldier writing a book about his experiences in war, and Bokeem Woodbine shows up as a hardass sergeant. Some of them get sweet redemptive arcs while others die horribly, and while either outcome is beautifully effective to watch in every single case, the characters are so insufferably cliche that getting to that turning point was a chore. And I’m including Ford in that assessment, by the way.

The Nazis are mostly faceless goons, and even the head scientist (played by Erich Redman) is unremarkable. That said, Pilou Asbaek plays the most notable villain — watching him start as a Nazi rapist and get progressively less human from there (Yes, seriously.) was a ghastly delight. From start to finish, this is a movie all about portraying Nazis as cartoonishly evil and larger-than-life supervillains, while the heroes are free to kill them with impunity because of all the inhumane and unspeakably horrific things the Bad Guys are doing. It’s honestly kind of nice to get back to a time when nobody would stand up for Nazis no matter how we portrayed them in media. (*ahem*)

That said, while this is a movie that indulges in the propaganda fantasy of Nazis creating abominations through mad science, this is a movie made to portray and directly address the terrors of war. Thus the “war movie” genre and the “body horror” genre go alarmingly well together. The macabre presentation of blood and gore works beautifully, whether the film is showing us people and corpses morphing into malformed zombies, or showing death and dismemberment on the battlefield in explicit detail. It’s like the Nazi tests and their subjects are an allegory for the grisly cost of war and the human beings made to suffer for some “greater cause”, though the filmmakers are mercifully smart enough to keep that as implicit subtext.

In any case, the action scenes are exciting and superbly edited, the war sequences are compelling and presented in a sweetly immersive manner, and the horror… well, the atmosphere is solid and the body horror looks great, but the jump scares were pretty obnoxious. That said, I thought the sound design had some wonderful touches, aside from the overly loud stings that came with every jump scare. Kudos are due to Jed Kurzel for the wonderful score, and for cinematographers Laurie Rose and Fabian Wagner for keeping everything clearly visible even when so much of the film was shot in dark and grungy conditions.

On a miscellaneous nitpick, I was disappointed to see how many setups went without payoffs. Without going into detail, I could list at least two or three plot threads off the top of my head that were either explicit setups or implicit setups, offering so much potential that was never followed up on. And in a 100-minute movie that otherwise moves at a great clip, all the time spent on dead-end plot trails makes a definite impact.

For example, that time could’ve gone toward explaining how Chloe miraculously gets away from Nazis near the start of the film. Just saying.

Overlord has its problems. The plot is simple to a fault, the horror is tainted by two or three bad jump scares, and pretty much all of the supporting characters are insufferably annoying before they either die or improve themselves. That said, this is still a movie in which most of the cast is comprised of white males, yet our two leads are a black man and a kickass woman — that counts for a lot. Moreover, the “war is hell” angle is superbly presented, the action is wonderful, and the body horror is delightfully gruesome when it’s on point. Plus, considering how many first-timers and lesser-knowns are in the cast and crew, this is a damned impressive final product.

The highest praise I can give this movie is that it’s a whole greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, that’s typically the highest praise I could hope to give any movie. So, yeah, I’m perfectly happy to give this a recommendation. Check it out.