In 1992, id Software released Wolfenstein 3D, a computer game that essentially created the first-person shooter genre of modern gaming. In it, an American spy escapes from the titular castle (the game being the third in the Wolfenstein series), shooting his way through Nazi hordes, traversing secret passageways, and ultimately destroying dangerous (fictitious) German military experiments, including an army of undead super soldiers and a robotic gun suit manned by Adolf Hitler himself.
I played that game a ton as a kid, including separate prequel episodes that had even more messed up shit in them. I’m not a fan of shooters anymore – grew out of it in college, mostly because I got sick of being shot from behind – but this game and others like it weighed heavily on my mind while watching Overlord, the new J.J. Abrams-produced war horror film directed by Julius Avery (Son of a Gun) and co-written by Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) and Mark L. Smith (The Revenant).
The film really does have a video game feel to it. The opening scene, where our protagonists fly toward Normandy Beach on the eve of D-Day (hence the title – the invasion was dubbed “Operation Overlord”) contains somewhat perfunctory, cliché-laden expository dialogue that felt very much like a cutscene in a major war-based game. When the plane carrying the troops is attacked, and the soldiers parachute out, the first-person perspective of Private Ed Boyce (Jovan Adepo of Fences) feels like a Quicktime event as he dodges debris whilst parachuting to safety. The rendez-vous with the survivors of the plane acts as something resembling a tutorial level.
The weird thing is, even with the stilted lines, it actually all felt fairly fresh, because despite several efforts over the last 25 years, we’ve never really had a good movie based on a video game. We’ve had good movies – as well as some bad ones with great camp value – with a plot centering on a video game (Wreck-it Ralph, The Last Starfighter, Tron, etc.), but we’ve never had a truly good adaptation of a video game on the big screen. I mean, I enjoyed Mortal Kombat in 1995 because it literally came out on my 13th birthday and I was the target audience, but apart from that, pretty much nothing. On Rotten Tomatoes, the #1 and #3 rated video game movies of all time came out this year – Rampage and Tomb Raider, respectively – and they both peak at just over 50%, still “Rotten.” Hell, one of the few regrets I have cinematically – and just in the general course of my life – is that in 1993 I willfully skipped out on seeing Jurassic Park with my family, instead choosing the Bob Hoskins/John Leguizamo Super Mario Bros. We all make mistakes.
It’s actually frustrating that we’ve never had a good video game movie, and I’m already quite wary of Illumination’s attempt at a Mario movie coming next year. But Overlord gets us closer than we’ve ever been to a good straight-up adaptation, because the film feels like a combination of games like Call of Duty or Medal of Honor with the classic Wolfenstein 3D. The early acts feel like a slow-paced war game with incremental goals and objectives, while the back half falls right into that creepy, survival shooter mode. Heck, even the film’s title font looks like the one used in the games.
Adepo leads a cast of virtual unknowns in the film, going on his first major assignment of World War II, with orders to destroy a radio tower in a small town French church so the Nazis won’t be able to communicate a response to the Allied invasion taking place the next day. After their plane is shot down, Pvt. Boyce encounters four survivors from his squad: the explosives expert Corporal Ford, played by Wyatt Russell (son of Goldie Hawn and Kurt, younger brother of Kate Hudson); Tibbet, a stereotypical New York Italian talking like a mook (John Magaro of Not Fade Away); Morton Chase (Iain De Caestecker of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), a photographer and war correspondent; and Dawson, a writer played by Jacob Anderson (Grey Worm on Game of Thrones). Together, they make for the target town, where they meet Chloe (French actress Mathilde Ollivier), who agrees to hide them in her house while they carry out their mission.
The town is under Nazi control, with curfews and patrols happening all night. Some people caught out are arrested and shot, while others are taken to the church, where they become the subjects of gruesome experiments that leave them deformed and enraged beyond humanity. Such was the fate of Chloe’s aunt, returned to her as a warning not to go against the Third Reich. Chloe must also submit to the advances of Captain Wafner (Pilou Asbæk, aka Euron Greyjoy from Game of Thrones), who leads the local occupational force.
While Tibbet and Chase search for more survivors, Boyce infiltrates the church, rescuing another soldier, Jacob Rosenfeld (Dominic Applewhite of The Inbetweeners), who was about to undergo the experiments. This leads to a final act charge to destroy the entire church and rescue Chloe’s little brother, all while fighting the soldiers and a final boss who overloads on the experimentation.
If you try to see the film as a war drama, or even as survival horror, you might be disappointed, and that’s because from the normal and narrow genre definitions, the film really can’t decide what it wants to be. But again, as a living video game, it works exceptionally well. There are some half-decent scares (thankfully the jumps are telegraphed so you don’t feel like an idiot for an involuntary flinch), the acting is about on par with most middling-to-good video game voice talent, and the effects are right above the level of a modern shooter.
I’m sure there are some weird, J.J. Abrams-style mysteries or poignant moments to be found (I didn’t notice any, but I’m sure they’re there), and of course you’re never going to lose money rooting against Nazis. But honestly, just take it as a game. It makes for a much better ride that way. If nothing else, I felt just as satisfied when this was over as I did when I finally beat Wolfenstein.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What video game would you like adapted for the big screen? Did you ever pass up an all-time classic for a dud? Let me know!