Anna Camp in Brave New Jersey (Gravitas Ventures)

On the night of October 30th, 1938, the (very) small town of Lullaby, New Jersey, is going about its usual routine when, on the radio, the music from Raymond Rocello and his orchestra is interrupted with a breaking news bulletin: an invasion is happening in Grover’s Mill, three hours away. Martians are apparently landing and taking over the world. The townspeople panic—every single one of them—and assemble to prepare for the invasion, all the while not comprehending that they are falling victim to what was, and still is, the most brilliant piece of “gotcha” theatrics in radio history, courtesy of 23-year-old director Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater’s The War of the Worlds.

I was reminded a little of Steven Spielberg’s action-comedy bonanza 1941, where the city of Los Angeles freaks out after Pearl Harbor, fearing that the Japanese would attack there next. That movie had the problem of its own excessive tendencies, but at least it fully went whole hog with its premise. In a way, the new film has the opposite issue. Though it is a comedy; everything feels so small, obviously shot on a low budget (Tony Hale and Anna Camp are the most recognizable faces here), and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the film lacks imagination.

The characters are mostly too obvious, such as the local priest who, of course, is the one who immediately panics the most when the news first spread. Hale plays the awkward mayor, and Heather Burns is Lorraine, a local wife and mother. Their dynamic is established so firmly we can’t imagine it deviating a bit. There are a few other meant-to-be colorful supporting characters, but none of them really stick out. Also, the filmmaking style feels fairly static. The camera doesn’t move around much at all, and while everything is shot at night, nothing feels atmospheric. It could have been a TV movie.

There are some moments to keep one engaged, such as Raymond J. Barry’s wonderful and surprisingly intense performance as an old man who becomes the de facto leader on this night (his character relives his glory days of battle as he now prepares the town for the aliens). If you do watch the film, he is worth it, almost. He’s one of those wonderful actors who always brings a level of emotional honesty, such as in Born on the Fourth of July as Tom Cruise’s dad.

What no one brings up (though it’s easy enough to find through a quick trivia search online) is that not everyone was listening to the broadcast of The War of the Worlds that night. This misconception was brought by the reports of the hysteria from those believing the broadcast was real. In reality, there was a more popular radio show on that night, starring Edgar Bergen and his puppet Charlie McCarthy. It got more of an audience.

Directed by Jody Lambert
Written by Lambert and Michael Dowling
Released by Gravitas Ventures
USA. 86 min. Not rated
With Tony Hale, Anna Camp, Raymond J. Barry, Erika Alexander, Evan Jonigkeit, Heather Burns, and Sam Jaeger