Following its black-and-white studio production logos and 1940s-style title card, Julius Avery's Overlord opens with a bang. In the hours prior to D-Day, a plane full of American soldiers makes its way across the Atlantic Ocean and into hostile territory, and while some may act brash and confident, you can very clearly feel the fear in the atmosphere. Their sergeant, played by Bokeem Woodbine, barks their mission statement, informing the vessel that the target is a radio jammer that must be taken down before the Normandy Invasion. It's not long before things get turbulent and violent, as German bullets fly and ships in the fleet explode in fiery balls, but the young combatants must wait for a green light before making their jump.
It's an intense and impressive start to what at first appearances looks to be a no-frills war movie -- and it's actually too bad that it doesn't continue on that path. Instead, Overlord opts to ultimately juice up the story with and mutant zombie Nazis, and what starts as a solid film is diluted with half-baked sinister science.
While Overlord isn't set to arrive in theaters until November, it made its world premiere this past weekend at the genre-friendly Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, and it offered a mix bag for audiences. It definitely has a number of good things going for it, including an engaging ensemble of characters, some cool special effects, and some fun sequences, but it's let down by a bland and choppy script that never really lets the material fully engage with its sci-fi and horror notes, and leaves them weirdly feel jammed in.
As far as the ensemble goes, most of the characters are essentially tropes, from the Brooklyn-born tough guy Tibbets (John Magaro) to the nebbish war photographer (Iain de Caestecker), but they do get to pop thanks to the charisma and likability of the cast. Boyce, played by Jovan Adepo, is the primary protagonist and given the most depth -- a flustered soldier who serves as a translator and isn't sure about his ability to kill -- but he's also surrounded by standout turns from Wyatt Russell as the strictly utilitarian Ford, and Mathilde Ollivier as Chloe, a French woman who has reached the end of her tolerance of the Nazi occupation. And on the villain side of things, Pilou Asbæk certainly brings it as an evil son-of-a-bitch whose death you are most definitely anticipating by the time Overlord moves into its third act.
Simply watching these characters on a mission to destroy a radio jammer in order to initiate the Battle of Normandy would have been excellent -- but being a Bad Robot production it unfortunately decides to turn everything on its head with its genre twist, and it's very much a shit or get off the pot. The movie does offer some cool craziness -- such as a talking head-on-a-spine, and some disgusting gestation bags -- but audiences should go in knowing that there isn't a single zombie horde to be found, as the creature material is brief and disappointingly minimal. This is because the project isn't introduced as one that the Nazis will soon be ready to unleash upon the world, but instead as just being its nascent stages. In combination with knowing that the Allied forces are just hours away, it doesn't leave a lot in terms of high stakes.
It's always rewarding to see Nazis meet grisly ends on the big screen, and Overlord certainly offers that -- but it's weird that it could have accomplished its larger goals without trying to do so much. It's not a failure as a taste of entertainment, but it really isn't much more than that, and you do feel like it could have been.