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Overlord isn't a mystery box–it's a kill box

Overlord isn't a mystery box–it's a kill box

The three questions I always have leading up to a J.J. Abrams-produced movie:

  1. Who actually wrote and directed this?

  2. Is this a secret Cloverfield?

  3. After the twist the trailer hints at is finally revealed, does the movie have anything else going for it?

Some answers for Overlord:

1. Julius Avery directed it, following an Australian crime movie I hadn't previously heard of. He's now attached to remake Flash Gordon and direct another J.J. Abrams project. Mark L. Smith and Billy Ray wrote the film, and they're separately responsible for movies as diverse as FlightplanCaptain PhillipsThe RevenantVolcano and the severely underrated motel-based horror gem Vacancy. I don't know if J.J. Abrams insists on getting top billing on his projects, if the studio insists on it because they did it once with Cloverfield, at a time when Lost was red hot, and it's too late to change things now, but it's weird.

The same thing happened with Abrams' idol Steven Spielberg in the 80s-- whatever the man's actual involvement in movies like Goonies and Poltergeist, the casual moviegoer associates them closest with Spielberg. Julius Avery is Overlord's Tobe Hooper, though he doesn't have Hooper's cache (who does?). If you're trying to figure out what this movie is going to be before you walk in, the screenwriters' work is too scattershot to point toward a real direction and the director is relatively untested, but the producer's name splashes across the ad campaign and movie screen in a huge font like he not only fully responsible for Overlord but also for screens and fonts.

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2. Despite heavy Internet speculation in the time since Overlord was announced and The Cloverfield Paradox hit Netflix, this is not a secret Cloverfield.

3. Yeah, I think so. Overlord's trailers reveal an incredible amount for a J.J. Abrams movie, and so when a small band of American soldiers come across horrifying experiments in Nazi-occupied France, the audience isn't supposed to lose their minds the way they were expected to when we found out it was Kahn all along or when we finally saw outside the bunker in 10 Cloverfield Lane. Nobody buys a ticket for Overlord, with its Nazi zombie poster, thinking it's going to be a somber tribute to the men and women who died in World War II; the whole experience doesn't become one of Abrams' 'mystery boxes.' As a result, it's one of the better things he's been attached to.

If Overlord has a surprise, it's that it's a straight war movie for the first 45 minutes. After a thrilling parachute drop, we follow a few soldiers as they try to take a Nazi radio tower before D-Day. The soldiers are all cliches, down to the "Hey, I'm walkin' here!" Brooklyn greaser, and they serve their purposes in escorting the characters we actually care about between action set-pieces. Once they finally get to that radio tower, the stuff of radio serials and Hellboy comics manifests onscreen. Overlord becomes a close sibling to From Dusk Til Dawn as it uses its second act to shove killers into a scenario where they have to kill things they aren't used to killing.

The shift creates a bizarre predicament for J.J. Abrams, which we'll call "The Cloverfield Paradox"-- most of the movies and TV shows (and that one book he co-wrote that wholesale ripped off House of Leaves) he makes can't stand up to the hype of their initial teasers (yep, even his novel had a mysterious teaser), and then when he finally has a hand in something genuinely interesting from beginning to end, it's for a project that was always up front about what could have been a big gearshift moment.

Overlord is a gross movie. Bones break, and then they mend themselves and then they break again. It is not a scary movie, but it's definitely a visceral one. This is one of those times horror means "you're going to be a little uncomfortable when a needle goes into a place it isn't supposed to be." J.J. and the folks he keeps mostly anonymous have made a brutal piece of action horror, and for once the 120-minute-long experience is far and away better than the 30-second-long trailer that preceded it.

Overlord opens today in Philly theaters.

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