Grade: D-

When the phrases “heavily promoted” and “not screened for critics” are both used to describe a movie, a feeling of dread is the proper response. That’s certainly the case with “Skyline,” not because the alien-invasion picture is at all scary, but because it’s simply awful.

The movie comes from a bunch of visual effects guys—the writers and directors all hail from that field—and shows it. The visuals of ships coming down and scooping folks up like minnows in a net, or smaller vessels zooming about the landscape to track down the leftovers, would be impressive on the small screen, especially considering the modest funding behind them, though enlarged to theatre size they can’t compare with the best. The movie does show how far you can go visually on a small bankroll, but it still seems like “Cloverfield” done on a tenth of the budget.

But in every other area the picture’s a bust. The script is just your standard “War of the Worlds” rip-off, crammed with cardboard characters and lousy dialogue. The central couple are New Yorkers Jarrod (Eric Balbour) and Elaine (Scottie Thompson), who travel to Los Angeles to visit with his old buddy Terry (Donald Faison), who’s some sort of entertainment mogul. No sooner are they ensconced in his high-rise guest room than huge alien ships appear in the night sky and use their light rays to levitate most of the population up to them, including Terry’s buddy Ray (Neil Hopkins). But our protagonists, including Terry’s girlfriend and aide-de-camp (Brittany Daniel and Crystal Reed), are spared, and hide out from the invaders in the high-rise, eventually joined by building manager Oliver (David Zayas). Of course, they’ll be picked off one by one as military action against the aliens proves ineffectual and the nasty extraterrestrials come a-hunting with their zap rays and tentacles.

Without spoiling things overmuch, one can disclose that H.G. Wells’s nifty concluding twist is nowhere to be found here. Instead we’re given a distinctly dark denouement that involves the emotional tug of parenting (the most notable of the soap-operatic elements plugged into the narrative involves Elaine’s unplanned pregnancy). But none of the plot bits intended to humanize the earthly characters make them seem anything other than stick figures; and you know that the lesser folk introduced at various points—including Terry’s elderly neighbor Walt (Robin Gammell)—are there just to serve as fodder for the aliens.

And though the visual effects aren’t bad, they’re undercut by Michael Watson’s cinematography, which takes the shaky-cam philosophy way too far, and by Nicholas Wayman-Harris’ spastic editing. Matthew Margeson’s generic score is no plus, either.

The result is like a SyFy Network Saturday night special that’s inexplicably escaped to the big screen. But rest assured it won’t be there long.