A pedestrian animated “sequel” to H.G. Wells’ original story, awkwardly titled “War of the Worlds: Goliath,” turns that tale of Victorian-era Martian invasion into a generic series of noisy “Transformers”/”Starship Troopers”-style battle scenes set around the onset of WWI. Rote character writing, voicing and animation devalue the more impressive design elements of Joe Pearson’s long-aborning project, which began production in 2009 after more than a decade’s development. The film’s North American bow this Friday on single New York and Los Angeles screens, simultaneous with VOD and iTunes availability, marks its first theatrical exposure since a late 2012 opening in its principal producing nation, Malaysia. Home formats beckon internationally.
David Abramowitz’s script takes place 15 years after the events of Wells’ 1899 novel. (Neither book nor author merits attribution in the credits here, rather oddly.) Civilization has rebuilt itself after the Martians’ devastating attack, which claimed 140 million lives before the invaders were felled by the common cold. Meanwhile, mankind has benefited from scientists (notably Nicola Tesla) having “unlocked the secrets of Martian technology,” which means air travel and other aspects are greatly advanced in what otherwise looks like the Edwardian era of history books.
Red Planet dwellers haven’t given up their dreams of conquest, however. After a half-hour or so of setup — establishing the chip on the shoulder of Eric (voiced by Peter Wingfield) after his parents’ deaths, introducing his rainbow coalition of fellow pilots in global army ARES — they attack anew, just as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand is provoking international declarations of war. The ARES warriors (including an Irishman who’s part of a secret IRA plot) agree to lay aside their Earthly differences to fight humanity’s shared nemesis.
After this point, any hopes of narrative complexity go out the window, as the pic turns into basically one long battle sequence between the metal-tentacled Martian forces and ARES’ giant armed tripods. Though the pic is billed as an “animated steampunk epic,” the period setting is introduced only to be largely disregarded — the sole amusingly inspired reference to the times features Teddy Roosevelt as a freedom fighter blasting automatic weapons at Martian vessels, his manly forearms bulging like Popeye’s.
Alas, there doesn’t seem to be any humor involved in the visual depiction of nearly all other characters as having massive super-heroic shoulders, chests and biceps — was there a turn-of-the-century steroids vogue? — let alone in the wooden quality of their dialogue and its delivery. They look and sound like the Anglicized anime figures of many TV sci-fi action cartoon series from 20 years ago or more. The resulting cheesy, juvenile tenor is unfortunate, given the contrasting detail and imagination put into many backgrounds and machine designs; it also jostles uneasily against the few signs that this was perhaps once intended as a more mature fantasy, particularly in the repeated grisly image of screaming humans being seared to dust by Martian heat rays.
Pic was reviewed in 2D; it has been exhibited both in that format and in 3D, with stereoscopic rendering mostly applied just to the tripods and some other major objects.