“Overlord” is a decided throwback — an old-fashioned “B” movie cocktail, mashing together a perilous World War II mission, horror and science fiction, against the historical backdrop of saving D-Day. On the most basic level, it works as an action vehicle, even if the bare-bones plot lacks the ingenuity to sustain its promising start down the stretch.
Forgoing high-profile stars, the movie’s promotion has focused on J.J. Abrams, even if he’s only a producer here, leaving the directing chores to Australian filmmaker Julius Avery. Then again, Abrams produced “Cloverfield,” which also confounded expectations by weaving a horror-monster movie together with what felt like an episode of “Felicity.”
The mix-and-match genres idea certainly has its appeal, especially for those steeped in movie conventions. And “Overlord” takes off with considerable energy, as a small group of U.S. soldiers (notably color-blind in the casting) survive a harrowing parachute drop into Nazi-occupied France, where their task is to take out a heavily guarded German communications tower, making air cover possible for the D-Day landing.
Said tower resides in an old church, and the horrors that lurk within go beyond even the customary crimes of the Nazis. Those flourishes bring the film (written by Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith) into the sci-fi and alternate history realms, although no one will confuse this consciously popcorn-y exercise with “Inglourious Basterds” or “The Man in the High Castle.”
While there’s a lot going on, the basic character beats are easily identifiable, employing a kind of shorthand with both the heroes and villains. There’s the unproven new private (Jovan Adepo) who will be forced to find reservoirs of strength; the hard-bitten, taciturn corporal (Wyatt Russell) steadfastly committed to the mission; and the young French women (Mathilde Ollivier) who winds up helping them, having seen what monsters the Nazis are, separate from what’s transpiring in the basement of that church.
The more fantastic elements give the movie a relatively contemporary feel, and even the war sequences are shot in a fashion where bullets whiz by like laser beams in “Star Wars.” On the down side, the desire to ensure that nobody gets bored — even for a minute — leaves little room for exposition, other than the most rudimentary explanation of what’s going on, including the “why” and “how” of it.
If the movie is in part a cautionary tale about experimentation, “Overlord” is a bit of an experiment itself — an attempt to create a non-stop, hard-edged thriller that defies simple categorization, where the action is the ultimate star.
The procedure isn’t a complete success, but the movie wins a few battles in terms of its premise, energy and style, if not the entire war.
“Overlord” premieres in the U.S. on Nov. 9. It’s rated R.