Imagine a penny-pinched production of "Masterpiece Theater" directed by Ed Wood, with special effects created on a secondhand laptop. Now you're ready for "H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds," a direct-to-video travesty newly released to Wal-Mart, Amazon.com and other outlets to piggyback on publicity for Steven Spielberg's much pricier and higher-profile sci-fi melodrama. Bottom line: great timing, lousy movie.

Imagine a penny-pinched production of “Masterpiece Theater” directed by Ed Wood, with special effects created on a secondhand laptop. Now you’re ready for “H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds,” a direct-to-video travesty newly released to Wal-Mart, Amazon.com and other outlets to piggyback on publicity for Steven Spielberg’s much pricier and higher-profile sci-fi melodrama. Bottom line: great timing, lousy movie.

Multihyphenate Timothy Hines clumsily employs stock footage, obvious greenscreening and bargain-basement CGI in a vain attempt to create a faux epic on a frayed-shoestring budget, with a bare minimum of extras and bit players. Overall ineptitude could work to pic’s benefit, however: Curiosity seekers and camp devotees might want to savor straight-faced folly as accidental comedy.

Performances by cast of unknowns wouldn’t pass muster at most small-town community theaters. And the f/x spectacle — including Wellsian scenes of marauding Martians scuttling about in gigantic tripodlike contraptions — is far short of spectacular. Indeed, some Martians-vs.-mankind clashes appear to be recycled from early-’80s arcade videogames.

Other scenes have actors stiffly interacting with computer-generated backgrounds, foregrounds and/or panicky crowds. The mix is rarely seamless and never persuasive.

Indie cheapie has been hyped as the first “true adaptation” of Wells’ 1898 novel, meaning it’s actually set in Victorian-era England — though most of pic was shot in and around Seattle — and strains to contain as much of the original novel as possible.

Unfortunately, this makes for a long, ploddingly paced dozer in which entire swaths of Wells’ prose are transformed into painfully stilted dialogue. (At 179 minutes, Hines’ version is literally twice as long as producer George Pal’s less faithful but more exciting 1953 adaptation.)

Occasionally, actors filmed in black-and-white are inexplicably superimposed over garishly tinted landscapes and cityscapes, with truly bizarre, almost psychedelic results.

Wearing the phoniest-looking mustache to appear onscreen since Groucho Marx, Anthony Piana plays the Writer, who witnesses the terrifying Martian invasion. Piana’s flat portrayal of a charisma-free narrator/protagonist is, arguably, in keeping with original novel. (Wells biographer Michael Coren has rightly noted “War of the Worlds” is “not a work of characters and relationships, but totally one of plot and concept.”)

Footnote: Considering fidelity to source material is pic’s major selling point, it seems odd that Hines, much like Pal before him, gives more credit to God for the rescue of humanity than Wells did. Dialogue explaining why Martians expired before enslaving mankind sounds suspiciously like a direct quote from Barre Lyndon’s script for the ’53 production.

H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds

Direct-to-video

Production

A Sterling Entertainment Group release of a Pendragon Pictures production. Produced by Susan Goforth. Directed, edited by Timothy Hines. Screenplay, Hines, Susan Goforth, based on the novel by H.G. Wells.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Hines; music, Jamie Hall; production designer, Eric Nielsen; art director, Thorkheld Ohmspord; costume designer, Cherelle Ashby; sound, Jack Enderson; special mechanical and miniature effects, Michael Fransen; associate producers, John Gallo, Barbara Bauman, James Draegan. Reviewed on DVD, Houston, June 26, 2005. Running time: 179 MIN.

Cast

The Writer/The Brother - Anthony Piana Ogilvy - Jack Clay The Curate - John Kaufmann
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