One of the parenting tricks I use on going to a movie with a child is to solicit said child’s opinion of the film first, and not offer my own at all unless asked. Sometimes a father’s power is awesome and unwieldy, and the last thing I want to do, even when coming out of something like The Zookeeper, is to impose my taste on my children. The Boy is the only one who picked up on this, in his mid-teens, perhaps because we’ve seen a lot of movies together, and he’ll ask me first before offering his opinion.
When we came out of Overlord, the WWII Nazi Zombie movie he asked:
“What did you think, pappy?” (He seems to think I’m a grizzled old mining prospector, hence the “pappy”.)
“Honestly…I was bored.”
“So, it wasn’t just me!”
Movie criticism (as I often say) is generally someone planting his butt in a chair, having a reaction exactly the way a general audience does, and then back-filling that reaction with “reasons” and “logic”. It’s similar to the way people vote or, honestly, do anything. So what I’m going to do here is explain where we were coming from going into the movie, and then contrast it with two other movies (Die Hard and Rampant) we saw recently to try to explain why we reacted negatively compared to those.
Part 1: Why We Weren’t Going To See It, But Did Anyway, And Were We Right?
I had tried to lure The Boy into seeing this film earlier, but the trailer had set off some warning bells: The story is about a WWII paratrooper crew sent in to destroy a communications tower hidden in a church on the eve of D-Day (hence the title “Overlord”) so that the Allies can offer good air support. But when they get to the small French village where the church is, they find Weird Nazi Science (which doesn’t involve Kelly LeBrock, alas). So far, so good.
But the hero is a black soldier paratrooping in with a bunch of white soldiers and, of course, WWII troops were segregated. This does not necessarily mean anything, but could be a warning sign that the movie was going to prioritize Social Justice Warrior concerns over things like plot, action and talent.
Another possible warning sign was the jokey “Best Nazi Zombie Movie Ever Made” award. The Barbarienne made that joke followed tragically by the explainer “But how many of those are there?” I informed her I, personally, had seen half a dozen. And, let me tell you, it’s a low bar. Shock Waves with Peter Cushing and John Carradine, Oasis of the Zombies and Zombie Lake were pretty standard fare on “Pay TV” back in the day. Not too long ago, also, I saw the rather bizarre 1943 (!) film Revenge of the Zombies (also with John Carradine, ha!), which is the first known example of the genre.
Thing is, they basically suck. Some are at least bad enough to wrap around to entertaining again, but most are just typical low-budget zombie grinds, with lots of padding. (They Saved Hitler’s Brain, if we may stretch the definition of the genre, contains a mere five amazing minutes of smirking Adolph’s head in a jar.) Easily the best of the genre to date, Dead Snow, is still about half-padding with typical college-kid cabin-in-the-woods style cavorting up front.
Happily, we were wrong on both counts. There isn’t any SJW stuff in the movie per se. It took me about 40 minutes to get used to Boyce (the very good Jovan Adepo, Fences) being a black dude in a somehow integrated paratrooper outfit, and I was utterly jarred in the first few minutes by Bokeem Wood’s “Sgt. Apone” routine, but the movie signals its tone early on: This is an issue “Weird War Stories” comics.
There also isn’t any padding. Stuff that happens happens for a reason, character or plot development, or atmosphere. It’s also a very good looking movie. At a “modest” $38M, any corners cut are probably to the movie’s benefit, as the Red Letter Media guys point out in their review, restraining excess.
Part 2: Why Didn’t We Like It?
So, we both went in rooting for this movie. RLM gave it a glowing review, with the hyperbolic Stoklasa claiming that it was the best movie he’d seen in a decade. (Part shtick, of course, but he was quite enthused.) But we just could not get engaged. We ruled out a lot of things that weren’t the problem, like the production values, most of the acting, the (fairly typical) military blunders.
Most of the acting was quite good, as mentioned, but The Boy did not care for Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt). He looked, per The Boy, as though he should be sipping a soy latte while doing a kind of “I’m Batman” voice. (I thought he was okay but, yeah, a little more charisma would have been welcome in that role.)
The tropes in play—squad of Americans hiding out in French village to sabotage the Nazis—are actually kind of charming at this point. The squad is multicultural mostly in that WWII way: There’s an Italian, a Jew, a ginger, etc., a lot of male camaraderie, which the naive recruit, Boyce isn’t really in on. Newcomer Mathilde Olivier is perfect for the feisty French villager.
The music by Jed Kurzel (Macbeth, The Babadook) manages to rise above the usual Big Action mush, though not often enough, which is no fault of Kurzel’s, I’m sure but the nature of the beast with these modern studio films. The action occasionally wasn’t straight Hollywood, with some of the explosions given a more realistic treatment than the Big-Ball-of-Fire-You-Can-Walk-Away-From.
Ultimately, we were left to compare it with Die Hard. And actually, if we leap sideways from the music, we can see how the “just do it like all the other movies” philosophy robs us of a big part of the moviegoing experience.
But the bigger part seems to be that in Die Hard we’re positively intimate with the bad guys. The bad guys have a plan, and no matter how much John McClane messes with it, Hans Gruber is nearly unflappable in his single-minded pursuit. Every time we see a bad guy, his character is developed as is his role. There’s a finite number of bad guys with finite abilities.
In Overlord, it was much harder to engage. We have two villains you could pick out of a line-up: Big Bad and Mad Scientist. The latter is essentially just a trope who receives no development. The former is developed in the sense of being shown to be evil at every opportunity (which really isn’t that many). Well, we weren’t expecting great drama, and cardboard baddies can be fun. But the bad guys’ role is inchoate. We see a couple of “experiments”, but there’s no real focused end point for them.
That is, we don’t see Mad Scientist struggling to, e.g., find the one element that will make his dreams of an army of atomic supermen (who will show the world that he can be its master), or—really, the bad guys doing anything that has much of a progression.
The good guys have a role, too, but it’s very unfocused. Yeah, they’re supposed to knock out this tower for D-Day, but while we get occasional reminders of that, they’re mostly dithering about in the little French house. It’s all “go look for other survivors” and “go find out where those guys I sent” went. And the movie can’t seem to decide if the village under constant surveillance and full of sympathizers so the heroes have to be very quiet, or they can casually torture a screaming guy for hours.
Our hero accidentally finds himself inside the compound where the church and tower resides, and thus reveals to us the evil nature of the Nazi’s plans. But much like the village, it’s unclear whether this is a highly staffed, well patrolled fortification, or a sparsely populated quasi-goof.
Action stories seem to exist on a scale: At one end are physically logical ones, where the action occupies a well-defined physical space, where well-defined characters move about and do things for well-defined reasons. On the other end are movies that tend toward an aesthetic logic, where physical realities are highly subordinated to narrative needs. How many stormtroopers are there on the Death Star? As many as are needed to pose a threat to the heroes, but not so many as to overwhelm them.
Die Hard tends toward the mechanistic. You know what everyone is doing and why and where, even when it’s dubious (like dropping C4 down the elevator shaft) or irrational (like deviating from the plan out of revenge). On the other end are movies that tend toward an aesthetic logic, like the Korean movie Rampant. They tell you up front that the plague creating the zombie/vampire/demons takes a variable amount of time to take hold. To the point where, when you reach the climax and the villain embraces the plague and gains power from it, you’d have been disappointed any other resolution.
I think it’s safe to say that the former is a lot harder, especially for collaborative, market-driven spectacles like movies. The danger with the latter however, is that it allows you to cheat, and if the audience senses that you’re cheating, you lose them.
As much as we tried, we felt like the movie was cheating. You have to be quiet/go ahead and fire guns in the house. The nazi captain is escorted to his date by his menacing goons/nobody notices or cares when he’s gone all night. The compound is impenetrable/Except you can get in and out by an ivy overgrown side-gate, or just by accident. The four of us couldn’t possibly take on 40+ Nazi soldiers/Two of us can, though, even when wounded. We don’t know how many baddies there are/We can relax and let our guard down because we achieved our narrative goal. We can’t possibly plant the explosives inside/we don’t have enough to plant the explosives outside.
Each time we tried to buy into what the narrative was selling, it contradicted itself. But the overall production values of the film are quite good, and as noted, the movie doesn’t waste your time. So we didn’t hate it: We were just bored.