“Overlord” wants to be a cheesy, old-school good vs. evil tale combined with body-horror craziness, but its cockiness causes it to step on a landmine. It isn’t a worthless viewing experience, as it boasts some of the coolest special effects you’ll see all year, but altogether, this is an ill-advised creation, one that isn’t intentionally insulting but rather cringe-inducingly unaware of its irresponsibility.
It starts out as a standard WWII action movie, with American soldiers marooned in an occupied French town after being blown out of the sky by German turrets. The platoon, led by the damnably gorgeous Ford (Wyatt Russell), is on a “Call of Duty”-type mission to destroy a Nazi tower so the town can be liberated.
Also in his squad is the perpetually bewildered Boyce (Jovan Adepo), the hard-shelled-yet-sensitive-on-the-inside Tibbet (John Magaro), the plucky Rosenfeld (Dominic Applewhite), and the personality-starved Chase (Iain De Caestecker). None of them contain depth and seem intentionally written to seem this way so they can fit the mold of the faceless war-machines you play as in an FPS video game.
During their quest they stumble upon a potion that the Nazis use to turn their prisoners into hulking, invincible beasts. The villain of the film, the sadistic Wafner (Pilou Asbæk), explains the purpose of the abominations in a ridiculous bit of B-movie dialogue: “A thousand year Reich needs a thousand year army.”
The best part about the film is the look of the beasts. The effects are astonishing. The unrelenting grossness of the creatures is genuinely hair-raising. Every movement of the demons, down to their twitches and squirms, makes you shrink into your seat as they charge towards the screen.
What immediately puts a halt on the film, however, is the disturbing fact that the Nazis did perform unspeakable experiments on countless individuals during WWII. They didn’t turn anybody into super-monsters (they did much, much worse), but the film’s acknowledgement of how the Nazis abducted people and gave insane scientists carte blanche to treat them like guinea pigs puts the plot in an uncomfortable proximity to what actually happened. Simply put: the experimentations are cruel piece of history that the makers of “Overlord” mined for fantasy, and if that sounds disconcerting, that’s because it is.
On top of that, “Overlord” can never find a tone to hold onto, constantly bouncing between suspense, horror, and action. Julius Avery’s direction seems to be firmly rooted in video game sensibilities, especially those of the aforementioned “Call of Duty” franchise and the most recent “Wolfenstein” shoot-em-ups, but his embrace of gory-glitz-and-glamour eventually becomes numbing and obnoxious.
Bizarrely, screenwriters Mark L. Smith and Billy Ray seem to have taken most of their plot-guidance from the mediocre 2008 film “30 Days of Night” (with one action scene in particular standing out as an unmistakable tribute).
“Overlord” doesn’t want its viewers troubled by history. It wants to be cathartic and grotesque in the harmless way most horror films are, but that’s exactly why it is so misguided: it is not like those other films because its plot stands too closely to the fires of cruelty that blaze around things that actually happened. Even though the good guys win by the time the credits roll, one wishes that their MacGuffin didn’t so closely resemble humanity’s darkest moments.