Cinema Dispatch: Overlord

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Overlord and all the images you see in this review are owned by Paramount Pictures

Directed by Julius Avery

I know World War II movies are pretty common during Oscar Season, but I still don’t think the Academy is gonna be looking towards this movie once voting begins.  One of these days there’ll be a zombie movie that takes home the gold, but until then we’ll just have to make do with what we’ve got which in this case actually looks pretty darn good!  I mean sure I’m not the BIGGEST JJ Abrams fan, even when it comes to stuff that he’s only producing and not directing, but he managed to turn Star Wars and Star Trek into sold movies for contemporary audiences, so maybe his outfit can do the same for World War II occult movies of which there’s actually a lot more than you’d think!  Will this be the movie exceed everyone’s expectations despite its seemingly low brow premise, or is this another example of a great idea failing to live up to its absurd potential?  Let’s find out!!

Private Ed Boyce (Jovan Adepo) is not what you’d call a happy camper.  He was just some guy living his life in peace, presumably doing his part for the war effort, and then one day Uncle Sam tells him to stop buying War Bonds because he’s going to stab some Nazi bastards himself!  At least he MIGHT get to do that if the plane he’s on doesn’t get shot down before they even get to where they’re going, but what are the chances of THAT happening?  Actually a lot higher than you think which leads to him and a few other stragglers including Ford, Tibbet, and Chase (Wyatt Russell, John Magaro, and Iain De Caestecker) to complete their mission all on their own.  Said mission is to get to a French church that’s been overtaken by Nazis and destroy the radio tower that’s been constructed there which is causing problems for the Allies, and they need to do it on the double!  Along the way they meet a civilian named Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier) who lives in the occupied village next to the church wants to scalp Nazis as much as most of them do, and so they must work together if they are to not only shut down that tower but free her village from the bastards who just love to kidnap the villagers when they aren’t outright shooting them dead in the streets.  If that wasn’t bad enough however, rumors have been flying about what else the Nazis might be up to in that Church and it’s surely something these soldiers are not the least bit prepared to deal with on top of the neigh impossible mission they’ve been saddled with.  Can our heroes take down that tower and stop whatever is going on in that Church (*cough* zombies *cough*) before it’s too late?  Is Private Boyce prepared to do what’s necessary to complete the mission, or will he buckle under the pressure of what he’s being asked to do for his country?  Is JJ Abrams STILL trying to pull that whole “mystery box” shtick even when the premise is THIS obvious and telegraphed!?

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“Those aren’t zombies!  Those are Killer Klowns from outer space!  Welcome to the Killer Klown Extended Universe!”

I liked this movie which I think is a pretty fair, if not particularly imaginative, assessment of this movie!  I’m not feeling TOO strongly about any particular aspect of it to come up with some unique or edifying perspective on this, but not every film has to be more than whiz-bang shooty fun which is where this film’s strength lies.  Its roots in pulp storytelling and EC Comics stylistic excess are very clear from the outside and very much appreciated; almost as if this was the live action adaptation of the B-17 segment from Heavy Metal.  I feel that MAYBE the movie should have either added something new to the formula or gone in just a bit harder on the absurdity and twisted influences to push this over into greatness, but what we get is still really damn entertaining and fun little action pallet cleanser to the more serious minded films we’ve been getting lately; or at least movies that THINK their serious minded.

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“FREDDIE MERCURY’S SOLO ALBUMS DIDN’T BREAK UP THE BAND!!”     “Well there’s no reason to start a flame war over it.”     “I respectfully disagree.”     *FWOOSH*

Right off the bat this movie starts out firing on all cylinders with a scene that might just be up there with Saving Private Ryan as far as World War II movie openings.  Even before anything supernatural occurs, the movie feels intense and claustrophobic as the characters are alternately sitting in a giant metal plane that isn’t even close to bulletproof and walking through Nazi occupied France with death and grievous bodily harm waiting for them around every corner.  Sure everything is a bit cartoonish here as the Nazis are THAT much more over the top than they were in real life and we’ve got some walking talking clichés making up our Band of Brothers, but it all goes back to that grimy sixties pulp aesthetic which only heightens the danger that they’re all facing.  Unexpected explosions that feel like they’re gonna crack the world in half, bullet fire that sounds like thunder so close that lightening will strike you at any moment, it all sets up a wonderful mood for the rest of the movie to build off of as our unaware heroes are walking right into the gateways to hell.  Sadly the movie itself never quite lives up to those opening minutes and sags rather heavily in the middle, but that’s still one hell of a way to get your audience invested in your characters!

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“Alright men, listen up!  If you see a Nazi, you shoot ‘em.  If you see a zombie, you shoot ‘em in the head.  If you see a werewolf… well we don’t have any silver so just try shooting ‘em and hope for the best.”

As I said, things sag a bit in the middle and for some reason I felt the movie was kind of… muted, which is a reaction I’m still trying to put my finger on.  The most obvious culprit is perhaps is that my expectations were WAY too high after seeing the trailer followed by the bombastic opening, and the movie couldn’t quite live up to that hype.  I was expecting the whole movie to take place in some kind of EVIL NAZI CASTLE where our characters were constantly having to duck and dive between rooms and hallways to avoid being seen by the Nazis, but instead the set is basically one house, one block of this small village, and a decently sized church with science labs beneath it.  It certainly WORKS with the movie they actually made instead of the one I imagined in head, but I still feel like things are a tad too small here.  Heck, even when we get to the MYSTERIOUS EXPERIMENTS, it ended up falling a bit flat for me for two reasons.  First, we KNEW what it was going to be when we saw the first trailer, so the movie taking its time to reveal “OH SHOOT IT’S ZOMBIES” felt a bit unnecessary.  Second, well… there’s just nothing that interesting ABOUT the zombies.  They don’t have any real personality to them, they are hardly even a threat when you get right down to it (I think they maybe kill one dude in the whole movie?), and it honestly feels a bit like an afterthought.  There aren’t that many of them, we’re still mostly fighting Nazis, and frankly we don’t need ZOMBIE Nazis for the Nazis to seem evil.  Regular Nazis work just fine for that and I felt that outside of a few creative shots here and there (one zombie which is basically just a spine looks pretty cool) it doesn’t really take full advantage of its concept.

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“Is there something on my face!?”     “Uh…”     “IT’S A ZOMBIE JOKE!  HA HA!!”     “It is?”     “Oh well if you’re gonna be HURTFUL, then let’s just jump to the brain eating part!”     “At least I won’t have to listen to anymore jokes.”

In fact, we should probably talk about the fascist elephant in the room.  The movie picks up quite a bit whenever the Nazis show up who bring with them a heck of a lot of tension as there’s DOZENS of them in the village versus the five who are there to stop them and I think the movie does a good job of keeping them slightly over the top in their evilness without diminishing the real world evil that they represent.  That said, perhaps it goes a bit TOO far with one scene in particular involving he NAZI COMMANDER sexually assaulting someone under the threat of destroying their family which I have no doubt is something that plenty of them were guilty of, but it still feels a bit much.  I usually recoil from the depiction of that kind of stuff in most movies already and putting it in a movie with Zombie Nazi head shots and flamethrowers doesn’t make it any more palatable.  Outside of that though, the Nazis are pretty great, by which I mean EXCEEDINGLY punchable (even if none of them have Frog Man’s awful haircut), and they make for great meat bags for our heroes to pump lead into all throughout the movie!  Now that’s not to say this movie is JUST mindless splatter fun as there IS an actually story in here and it’s a pretty good one at that.  It mostly boils down to Jovan Adeop’s Private Boyce having trouble adapting to the new life he finds himself in which I’m sure was the case for many people in the war who may not have seen zombies per se but still weren’t ready to face the horrors of Nazi atrocities and the carnage of war.  Everyone else is more experienced than him, particularly Ford and even the civilian Chloe which means he often defers to them whenever things get too intense, and we get to see him grow past that over the course of the movie.  Sure, there’s always room to discuss the ethical nature of depicting warfare as one big action packed video game, especially when that seems to be the endpoint of Private Boyce’s arc, but really the story is just a garnish on top of a satisfyingly bloody cake (frosted with the tears of Nazi assholes) and whatever message there is to be mined in this is so light as to be inconsequential even if some of it is questionable.

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“Explosions!?  The zombies’ one weakens!  DAMN YOU MILITARY INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX!!”

I feel that I often come off as too critical of movies that aren’t total and overwhelming successes such as this one, but I find that talking about where a movie could find places to improve tends to be far more interesting than regurgitating what it gets right.  This movie has good characters, some REALLY dark and troubling moments throughout, and a cathartic ending that nearly makes up for whatever flaws there are in the movie.  Sure the pacing can be uneven, the second act goes on too long, and it’s not quite the BILLION DOLLAR NAZI ZOMBIE BLOWOUT EXTRAVAGANZA I had pictured in my mind, but just because my mind tends to focus on those aspects doesn’t mean that they should overshadow what’s good about this movie, and it’s certainly better than most of the films I’ve seen in the last few weeks!  It’s big enough and has enough explosions that it’s worth checking out in the theater, and I’m guessing most kids are gonna have a MUCH better time watching these bad asses blow up Nazis than that watered down excuse for a Grinch movie.  Hey, if kids were watching Robocop and Rambo in the eighties, our kids today can handle a few zombies and head shots, right?

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