J.J. Abrams may be the closest thing to Andy Warhol Hollywood has known. At his peak, you'll recall, the pop artist often didn't personally execute his ideas. He jobbed that out to minions, which is why his Manhattan studio was called the Factory.
Abrams' name has similarly become a brand and, increasingly, his medium of choice has become ideas (the occasional Star Trek or Star Wars sequel aside). Years ago, he even went to the trouble of writing films. His last sole writing credit for a feature was Super 8 (2011), which wasn't a big step up from 1997's Gone Fishin'.
Abrams' breakthrough came in 2004 when, along with colleagues, he created "Lost" and directed the pilot. That's apparently when it hit him that he didn't need to go to all the trouble. He could produce. Sure enough, in six years he never directed another episode of the series that made his name synonymous with science fiction and the supernatural.
What a racket! Warhol would have loved it. The latest J.J. Abrams creation that J.J. Abrams neither wrote (Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith did that) nor directed (that got jobbed out to Julius Avery) is Overlord. It's unclear what the mogul contributed besides his name. He may have helped develop the picture's premise.
Which is ironic, since Overlord's premise is among its least effective elements. In theory, the idea of starting viewers down the path of an old-fashioned World War II saga and surprising them with a detour into zombie territory has loads of schlocky promise. In practice, though, it's simply impossible to pull off today.
In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock could get away with starting Psycho as the story of Marion Crane stealing from her boss and leaving town before rerouting unsuspecting viewers into horror territory. He didn't have "Entertainment Tonight" or Rotten Tomatoes to contend with. Everyone who buys a ticket to Overlord knows they're signing on for a war movie/monster flick mashup. So much for surprises.
Jovan Adepo and Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt) star as American soldiers who parachute into occupied France on the eve of D-Day. Their mission is to destroy a radio tower atop a village church so troops on the beach will have air cover.
On the upside, the drop is choreographed for maximum white-knuckle fun and sports polished production values. Additionally, the film's creators manage some clever casting. John Magaro plays the sort of wise-ass Bronx-accented grunt I long ago noticed pops up in virtually every WWII movie. That was savvy.
On the downside, well, there's everything else. Those Nazis. Wouldn't you know some Josef Mengele wannabe would have a lab in that same village church? And that he'd be performing experiments on dead soldiers in search of a way to create soldiers who can't die? Y'know, zombies.
Imagine the look on our heroes' faces when they infiltrate the house of worship and find themselves facing not only Germans but also an army of undead guinea pigs, botched science projects out for blood. At this point, the filmmakers pretty much dispense with plot and just let the gruesome CGI rip. And here, apart from an inventively grisly detail or two, viewers are unlikely to feel treated to much of anything new.
Few advances in zombie technology have been made since 28 Days Later (2002), when the slowly shuffling unstiffs suddenly turned herky-jerky and fleet. Certainly none is made here. The imprimatur of J.J. Abrams notwithstanding, Overlord is so been-there-done-that that a more fitting title might've been World War ZZZ.