“War Of The Worlds: Goliath” is a great yardstick of just how far Malaysian Cinema has come. It also shows that we still have a long way to go.
Far from being your average cynical critic, I have always maintained a cautious optimism about our local film industry. An optimism that unfortunately has very seldom been rewarded. Aside from the occasional indie gem, we have very little to be proud of. The Malaysian studio system (or what passes off as one) is content to churn out formulaic garbage expressly created to make a quick buck. In that sense, it’s really not all that different from Hollywood. Except Hollywood has better production values, better stories, and better acting. To be honest, I don’t even mind the whole cheap & cheerful attitude. There is a place for the ‘lowest common denominator’ type of entertainment. My biggest gripe about mainstream Malaysian filmmaking is that there is almost no evidence of genuine passion and thoroughness of thought put into the films. It’s all rather half-hearted.
Which is why “WOTW: Goliath” stands out.
There is nothing half-hearted about it. Well, at least not in its conception. This film is very much a labour of love, a result of deep and lifelong geek passions being let out to play. For that alone, I must applaud its creators. “Goliath” is the brainchild of Tripod Entertainment, headed by a bunch of hardcore film geeks. I know this because I know some of these guys personally. Over the course of several years, I’ve had the honour of getting the inside track on this production from one of its producers, Leon Tan. And like all animated films, it proved to be a long, laborious process, fraught with uphill battles. Not just to get it made, but to see it receive any kind of distribution and theatrical release. After nearly half a decade, and with the blessings of the almighty Malaysian Film Board (FINAS), it’s finally in cinemas.
If you’re wondering how they managed to secure the rights to H.G. Wells’ seminal opus “War Of The Worlds”, the short answer is they didn’t. When an un-copyrighted fictional work passes a hundred years it automatically becomes public property, meaning anyone can use it. So the filmmakers have used that as a jumping off point to set their story in an alternate 1914, where mankind has reverse-engineered Martian technology in preparation for a global-scale war against the returning alien invaders. Although the concept of steampunk is nothing new, it’s always cool to see high-tech incorporated into a period setting. And here’s where the guys really got creative.
The design is easily the best thing about this movie — the vehicles, the weapons, the costumes, the characters. Kudos to production designers Spencer Ooi, Chia Wei Seong and Tiok Ngee Seong. You can kind of tell the designs are slightly derivative of, or should I say inspired by, existing stuff in pop culture. For example, the ground assault machines known as Tripods are reminiscent of the AT-ST Walkers from “Star Wars”. The good thing is they are given a fresh spin of their own. More importantly, the design language has an overall feeling of consistency. They all look like they belong in the same world, and made by the same people. I particularly like the biplanes/triplanes with their amped-up weaponry, while the Zeppelins remind me (in a good way) of the Helicarrier from “The Avengers”. If SHIELD were around during World War I, that is.
Speaking of that period, I like how they integrate real historical events into the story, only to spin history off into a completely different tangent. WWI was sparked off with the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand, and the film touches on that incident. But here, the war between nations never happens because mankind suddenly has much larger concerns to deal with. It’s also amusing to see how real historical figures like President Theodore Roosevelt and inventor Nikola Tesla play a role in this particular universe. There are also nice little details that hint at how uber-militaristic society has become, like the Statue of Liberty wielding a sword instead of a torch.
Local audiences should get a kick out of the Malaysian character Lt. Raja Iskandar Shah, voiced by Tony Eusoff. The film paints him as a pious badass, and he evens gets to spout a line in BM. I can’t shake the impression that his presence here is a little forced, because if you remove him the entire thing feels like any other ‘Mat Salleh’ production — which it partly is, with Joe Pearson serving as director and David Abramowitz (TV’s “MacGyver” and “V”) on writing duties. Still, Shah does make an impression, especially in a battle scene where he uses a keris (a traditional Malay dagger) to take down a Martian tripod.
Other characters aren’t quite so memorable. In fact, they are the textbook definition of stock characters. There’s the noble hero, the feisty heroine who provides the requisite love interest (awkwardly shoehorned into the story), the comic relief sidekick complete with funny accent (Irish), the battle-hardened commander-in-chief, and the err… black guy. I’m citing his race since he has no other defining attributes. There’s an attempt to give the main characters some colour, like the hero’s bitter personal history with the Martians, and the Irish dude’s involvement with the IRA. But it’s a bit clumsy how those are integrated into the main storyline. Plus the voice acting is dodgy in places. As a result, it’s hard to care for what’s going on in this war when you don’t really get a feel for the characters. The climax ends with a nagging sensation of “That’s it?”
Also, the animation occasionally leaves something to be desired. In theory, the mix of CGI and traditional hand-drawn animation can work but here the difference is jarring. And certain action sequences are let down by a lack of true fluidity in the movements, making what should’ve been visually dynamic appear slightly lethargic instead. If I’m being kind of harsh here, it’s only because I am holding this up to global standards. Now, you might say this is unrealistic due to the fact that the major players like Pixar and Dreamworks have hundreds of millions to spend, to polish up the execution of their films to perfection. Here’s the thing: Animation is actually one of the great equalisers, where what you show on screen is limited only by imagination and the willingness to draw a vision out, frame by frame. That’s the reason why “Goliath” is an animated feature film and not live-action. So barring an expensive, full-on CGI affair, there’s no real reason why the animation can’t be close to — if not on par with — what Hollywood has to offer. Don’t get me wrong. The execution here is by no means poor. It’s excellent by local standards.
The reality is that it’s not enough for “WOTW: Goliath” to be the best thing on our own shores. To be considered a proper success it must face the Goliath that is the world market. Audiences are far more sophisticated in their tastes, not to mention pretty demanding on an executional level. Joe Public has been spoiled on giant, flashy spectacle, flawlessly delivered. So it takes considerably more to impress nowadays.
Now, having said all that, I think this film is a fantastic step in the right direction. If other local productions, be they animated or live-action, can display even half the commitment and passion the makers of “War Of The Worlds: Goliath” have, then it could very well be the start of a bright new era for populist filmmaking in Malaysia. We may have a long way to go, but with more films like these, we’ll get there.