We live in fast-moving times, to be sure. The news cycle threatens to spin off the axle, the shelf life of fashions can be measured in hours, people can wake up one morning to find entire segments of culture vanished in the night. The thing about permanent revolution (as Messrs. Karl M. and Leon T. described a version of this phenomenon) is that it leads to its own kind of constancy – reversion to some kind of center point, some region of minimum change.
That’s why I want to talk about war movies. It can be easy to forget, with the way the superhero passed the secret agent passed the cop passed the cowboy, but once upon a time Hollywood’s bread and butter was made on the war movie… Well, to be honest, the World War II movie, though we shouldn’t discount WWI movies like Paths of Glory or Lawrence of Arabia.
The war, as all-encompassing as it was, provided a huge number of different venues for drama – The King’s Speech to Dunkirk to The Imitation Game to Finest Hour, and that’s just ones about Britain from the past decade. Despite this, when I talk about “a war movie,” everyone knows exactly what I’m talking about: The boats and bombs and bullets and bravura. The important mission, the careful infiltration into enemy territory, the fearsome Nazi soldiers menacing the locals. The team: The uneasy private on his first assignment, the tough but fatherly commander who can’t be there, the crusty veteran with a scar1 he’ll tell you about later in the movie, the guy with romantic dreams for when he comes home, so you know he won’t be able to come home.
What you think of Overlord is contingent on your tolerance for this kind of story, so well-worn as to go past cliche into something like a national anthem – of course you know the words already, that’s the point. It’s quite a tidy movie. Very little information is introduced without having some direct bearing on the story, and even less of that information comes as the tiniest surprise to anyone who knows how war movies work. None of it is bad, per se, just predictable, and there are folks out there who can take predictable: Who enjoy the stability of the same routine every day, ordering the usual from a restaurant and knowing the dish will come out just how they like it. Our story follows a squadron of men on a mission, to infiltrate France and take out Nazi early-warning systems before the D-Day invasions. We check all the boxes from that list I made up there: Boats and bombs and bullets and bravura and “braaaaaains”…
You know what, I should touch on that: You might think the presence of Nazi mad science zombies would make the movie more distinguished, give it an angle of horror or science-fiction that puts a different spin on the material. To be frank, though, it really doesn’t: There have been gory war movies and horrific, dehumanizing war movies, and the zombie stuff is mostly there to bridge the gap between those two subgenres. Probably the biggest dividend it pays is how the movie becomes better-paced than it might be, since it wants the zombies to be a surprise: It’s a bit smaller than these things usually are, the story has a narrower and more character-focused perspective since they don’t want to tip their pallid, decaying hand too early.
As for the mad science zombies themselves, I refer to my previous comments on the subject: If you enjoy zombie movies – especially the gory ones, since there’s a good deal of blood and guts – then chances are you’ll enjoy this movie’s zombies. The presentation is a bit more inventive than the war stuff, doing some clever blending of practical makeup, digital mangling and strange editing to emphasize the body horror. These zombies contort in anguish, clutch missing body parts, and generally seem not so much like they’re attacking the living as much as trying to ease their pain.
It’s a mark of good direction, by Australian indie filmmaker Julius Avery – it might not seem hard, but I think it takes work to hunt around the stockroom. Avery puts some interesting designs into the movie, with lots of shadowy tableaux and colorful accents,2 that make the movie feel a lot bigger than its primary settings of a spooky house, the spooky woods and a spooky Nazi base-cum-secret lab.
That’s part of a larger philosophy that’s worth noting: Another version of the movie would probably have winked to the audience to a greater degree. It would be easy to slip in some perfunctory commentary on all the standard tropes, play up the retro angle, direct the performers to act as cartoons rather than just archetypes. Instead, the actors play the roles reserved, genuine within their arenas. Wyatt Russell can play world-weary almost as well as his father, and Jovan Adepo from Fences puts in good work as the hero, who’s basically Finn from Star Wars transplanted to Earth – no, that’s not just because he’s black, if you’re wondering.
That’s a good metaphor for Overlord, in fact: A cover song done well, the actual song being only a small part of what you think of when you hear it. There have been comparisons to the Wolfenstein video game series, but I disagree, since those games are the poster child for leaning into an absurd premise: The most recent games have had an interesting perspective on the inevitability of war among nations and the inevitable decay of all things, but it’s through the spectrum of steampunk giant robots and moon bases rather than the relatively subdued evil science zombies we see here.
I’m not prepared to call one better than the other, the difference is mostly a matter of ambition and expectation rather than anything objective. Go in expecting to sing along to Overlord’s tune, if you’ve heard the song before – not literally, though, since the Guns ‘n Roses song from the trailer is conspicuously absent from the movie.