As a 19 year old, I am well familiar with the Disney film Atlantis: The Lost Empire. It’s a vastly underrated animated flick where a wacky crew of steampunk explorers set out to find Atlantis. You don’t need to understand the ins and outs of the plot, but what you do need to understand is the tone. The dialogue is full of character — if not particularly complex — and the movie seems unconcerned with making the audience think, instead choosing to provide a highly entertaining spectacle.
When consuming (because that is the correct word) War of the Worlds: Goliath, I couldn’t help but think of Atlantis the whole time. Goliath wants to have a wacky steampunk-themed crew. It wants to provide a spectacle for the audience.
It fails at both of those things.
War of the Worlds: Goliath
Director: Joe Pearson
Release Date: March 7, 2014
War of the Worlds: Goliath takes place in the 1900s, after humanity has been decimated by a Martian invasion. Our bacteria drove the invaders back, but not after severe damage had been done. The planet then spent the next 20 years reverse-engineering Martian technology in preparation for the inevitable second wave.
The movie’s first misstep is in just how little of this war/rebuilding we actually see. Our protagonist — Captain Eric Wells (voiced by Peter Wingfield) — gets a character defining flashback from right before the Martians start dying out, but that’s it. Goliath makes a hard cut from this childhood trauma in Leeds to a reformed New York City, in the middle of Eric’s military career. It’s one of the many reasons this movie feels like a pilot for a TV show that never materialized.
Its second misstep — and the second reason it feels like a feature length pilot a lá Clone Wars — lie in the sub-plots. A romance between Eric and his Lieutenant, Jennifer (Elizabeth Gracen) comes and goes without very much fanfare. Romance is usually the emotional core of a war story, but this movie just doesn’t have an emotional core at all.
There’s also a quick story regarding Colonel Patrick O’Brien (Adrian Paul), an Irishman with ties to the IRA, but it’s gone after two scenes. The seeds being planted are so obviously setups. Very few aspects of Goliath’s first act return for the climax, especially the childhood trauma I mentioned before. Eric freezes up once, and that’s it.
None of this feels inherently pointless, it just feels like the writers completely forgot they didn’t have another 22 episodes to flesh out these concepts.
Also, there are totally commercial breaks. I wish I was exaggerating, there are transitions that feel like they should jump cut to a channel bumper or a Burger King commercial. That, above everything else, really gives me the feeling that I’m watching a late-night Cartoon Network movie.
But that could be forgiven. War of the Worlds: Goliath is poorly animated and the voice acting is horrendous, both of which are sizable problems.
In a movie about a war, you would think the actual war might be worth the spectacle at least. This is not the case, mostly because the animation feels static and cheap. It also doesn’t help that all the combatants are slow moving, stationary walking tanks. As a result, the battles are simple back and forths, with little opportunity for inventive fights. The sole exception is the climactic battle in New York City, which delivers some pretty fun action beats, but that’s entirely thanks to the fight’s massive scale. (Also, Teddy Roosevelt clutching a rail gun while riding atop a giant robot) Sadly, it’s almost too late by that point.
The fights also feel a little…hollow. It’s difficult to pin down exactly what about the action doesn’t work, so bear with me. The only thing that affects the Martian robots are heat rays, which take a few minutes to charge between shots. That’s a simple enough idea. It adds miniature ticking clock elements to each battle, which would normally be a clever use of built-in tension. So you’d think everyone would have heat rays, right? Nope! Most of the army uses regular guns, which never does a thing against the Martians. The humans have had years to study Martian technology. You would think someone would have come up with a laser pistol or something, but that’s not the case.
So you’ve got scenes where trained soldiers just roll up on a tripod and fire away. Every single time, the regular guns do absolutely nothing! As a result, the action scenes just become a waiting game until someone fires the heat ray. Goliath only ever uses the ‘heat ray as ticking clock’ twice, so they’re not using the regular guns to fill tension while the heat ray charges.
The tripods make things pretty boring too. They have weapons that — 100% of the time — tear through the humans’ defenses. An unstoppable foe doesn’t make for a very exciting fight scene.
You know what else is very important in war movies? Characters. Eric’s squad (known as Blue Team, I think, it’s not clear) are characters in the loosest sense of the word. I gave Atlantis a pass for this, because the characters had recognizable aspects. You ask me about Atlantis protagonist Milo, for example, and I can give you a few things. He’s nerdy, awkward, slightly cowardly, but ultimately a good person. The character designs in Atlantis also go a long way towards making each cast member feel somewhat unique.
Blue Team are not blessed with characteristics nor unique design. The silhouette rule (a distinct outline for each character, so they’re easily recognizable) has been discarded. Each member of Blue Team have unique details, but they all feel cut from the same generic action cartoon template.
I mentioned substandard voice acting earlier, and I feel like I should emphasize that point once more. I’ve done voice work before, and it’s not easy. But, even when I fail, it sounds like I’m trying. Everyone in War of the Worlds: Goliath just sounds tired. You know who doesn’t usually sound tired? Soldiers in the midst of battle. The actors are super whispery too, like recording took place in a nursery. Some energy would’ve really livened up the film’s utilitarian dialogue.
However, everything — the characters and the action — shapes up for the climactic New York City battle, but I have to wonder if that’s due to the scale of the fight. By this point, the characters have been a little fleshed out, so the audience cares about them a little more. And the size of the battle means there’s a lot going on, so the lumbering nature of the previous action scenes is doled out in small chunks. Plus Teddy Roosevelt clutching a rail gun while riding atop a giant robot. That part is pretty cool.
The movie also doesn’t seem to quite know what it has to work with. It’s oddly…restrained for a movie about a steampunk alien war (guest starring Nikola Tesla and Teddy Roosevelt). That may be due to budget or lack of vision, but the latter is my guess. If I was making this flick, I would have put Tesla and Teddy in a robot together from the get-go. Cut the boring soldiers. Deliver the one thing the audience has been imagining ever since you put Roosevelt on screen and practically flashed “HE WILL FIGHT MARTIANS” ad infinitum.
Look, War of the Worlds: Goliath is clunky, limp, and kind of dull, but it’s not terrible. It just doesn’t work. There’s a cool fight scene towards the end, where everyone involved with the film started caring about their jobs, but one rad battle is not enough to salvage this crummy flick.
If you’re looking to get into film criticism, or want to impress your friends by picking apart a movie nobody will love, give it a look when it inevitably makes an appearance on Toonami or something. The idea is sound, and the execution definitely shows promise, but I can’t recommend a film on concept alone.