For the first ten minutes or so, World War II action horror movie Overlord ticks a lot of boxes. The film has a surprisingly high budget ($38,000,000) for a niche genre product and as a result has a handsome production design. The cinematography by Laurie Rose and Fabian Wagner is striking, capturing the beauty of the French countryside as well as framing the various unpleasantness in a suitably Teutonic fashion. The visual effects both digital and practical are also of a high calibre, further adding to the authentic atmosphere. Yet despite all these positive points, Overlord is a somewhat slow and underwhelming affair, running fifteen to twenty minutes too long. Like so many modern movies, the focus of the production is on spectacle, rather than on character and script. Hence Overlords fails to meet its potential and makes for a somewhat frustrating viewing experience due to it squandering such a good opportunity.
On the eve of D-Day, a squad of crack paratroopers (are there any other type?) are tasked with destroying a German radio tower in an old church in France. Their plane is shot down before they can reach their target, leaving only four survivors; Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell) and soldiers Boyce (Jovan Adepo), Tibbet (John Migaro), and Chase (Iain De Caestecker). A local villager, Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), offers them shelter in her house where she looks after her younger brother and sick aunt. The unit subsequently learns how many of locals have been taken away to the laboratory under the church by SS Hauptsturmführer Wafner (Pilou Asbæk). What are the nature of the experiments that are conducted there by Dr. Schmidt (Erich Redman)? It soon becomes clear that the Third Reich is seeking to create a Übermensch, using a strange tar that is found under the foundations of the old church. Can Corporal Ford and his men foil this sinister (and extremely formulaic) plan and destroy the radio transmitter before the allied invasion commences?
Overlord is written by Billy Ray who has penned successful screenplays for The Hunger Games and Captain Phillips. During the movie’s production, genre writer Mark L. Smith was brought in to “polish” the existing script. Smith had previously garnered attention with his work on The Revenant. Sadly, despite their efforts the film’s dialogue, story and pacing are distinctly off. Now as this is a genre movie that expects us to embrace the concept of mutant Nazi’s, I’m not going to be too picky about some of the film’s historical inaccuracies. This is not meant to be an authentic historical recreation but an entertaining horror movie, so let’s not get bogged down in issues such as racial segregation that are conspicuously absent from the plot. No Overlords main failing is that not much happens for the first half of the movie. We’re simply presented with characters, a setting and a hint of sinister events. All of which could be established far quicker.
The two main antagonists are sadly two dimensional. For example, how do the writers establish that SS Hauptsturmführer Wafner is “evil”? By having him attempt to rape the only female character within five minutes of him being introduced into the narrative. As for our Mengele-esque Doctor Schmidt, he wanders around with a blood-stained apron and barks orders to verify his “baddy” credentials. It really is extremely lazy writing and a waste of a good cast. Everyone involved seems to be a cut above the standard journeyman genre actors that usually populate such movies. If the writers had taken some of the slack out of the initial story set up, they could have used the screen time to flesh out the various characters back stories. Especially the Nazis. Introducing racial tensions or focusing on the fact that one of the soldiers is a Jew could also have provided some further depth and interest in the proceedings.
There are some good action set pieces in Overlord but most of them are just regular combat sequences. The mutants have surprisingly little to do and appear on screen far too infrequently to be taken to heart as a tangible threat. The science, ideology and human suffering behind these ongoing experiments is never really explored. We briefly see a few “subjects” that have out lived their usefulness, put to the torch but as we don’t know who they were, the drama of the scene is diminished. When the horror elements finally do kick in, they are suitably grim and turned up to eleven. The cast do their best to engage with the story and are surprisingly polished given the paucity of the material. The quality of the production, along with dogged determination of certain cast members to deliver a “performance” irrespective of the scripts failing, is just enough to get things over the finishing line. Although not a complete dog’s dinner, you can’t help but feel that there is a part of the jigsaw missing from Overlord, and if that piece was found and added, you’d be left with a far superior movie.