★★★ / ★★★★
“Overlord” is a well-made and expensive war and B-movie hybrid, so entertaining and thrilling from beginning to end, one may almost consider it to be miraculous that the admixture of wild ideas works on the gut level. The screenplay is helmed by Billy Ray and and Mark L. Smith; the pair must be credited because they are clearly inspired by war films of the past. Without their inspiration, coupled with the energetic direction by Julius Avery, the project might have turned out to be far less impressive, just another horror film that just so happens to take place during World War II, lumbering about in tedium and pointlessness.
For instance, observe the first scene that takes place inside a plane. It is interested in capturing the colorful personalities of the paratrooper squad before they are placed in the hellish reality of war. We wonder which of these men would make it onto the Nazi occupied French grounds to execute their mission: Destroy a German radio tower located inside a church so D-Day could succeed. The scene is busy, loud, certainly overwhelming. And yet—there is control behind the chaos.
Faces are framed as if the picture were a war drama. It captures seemingly insignificant moments like nervous fingers tapping on a weapon. Growing anxiety and fear in trained soldiers’ eyes. Some of them look so sad and terrorized, we get the impression they would rather be anywhere else than inside that plane at that particular time. These decisions tether the pandemonium in something relatable and real. We care about these men even before they are required to jump off the plane.
Events on the ground are equally observant. Open spaces pose a threat. Enemy soldiers might be lurking behind dense bushes and trees. While at times their laughter can be heard from several yards away, it is more often that they do not reveal their location until they start firing. Mutated corpses of animals—or are they animals?—can be found strewn about. Dialogue is employed to establish rapport. And just as quickly a person drops dead just when we are starting to believe he might make it at least halfway through the mission. These moments of suspense and sheer shock are highly reminiscent of 1970s war films. And these details are presented way before the creepy underground laboratory situated inside the church. These are more inspired by B-movies of the 1980s. Notice the lighting. These are dim on purpose not just because the setting is underground but also to being to mind horror films released during that decade.
Despite its influences, the film is not simply a cheap imitation because it strives to forge an identity of its own. This characteristic is what separates the work from mediocrity. Less imaginative writers could have just as easily turned the movie into a parade of references, from science-gone-wrong “Re-Animator” to gore-fests like “Hostel.” Instead, connective tissues between scenes are strong; we know exactly why certain parts must be moved. I especially enjoyed Quentin Tarantino’s influence, particularly in how one seemingly nondescript location is used to exorcise various horrors. Yes, even “Ingloruious Basterds” comes to mind, especially in the idea that Nazis are pure evil manifested in human form. A bullet to the head is not enough. They must be killed by fire.
There is a lot to bite into here should one bother to look. But entertainment comes first. One can make a case that the action becomes repetitive after a while. Running around the hidden laboratory is not that interesting until our protagonists come face-to-face with experiments gone wrong. Still, I didn’t mind. The manic energy that propels the visuals ensures that we remain invested.