The 5th Wave starts with a lot of promise, leading us to expect a fresh take on the alien-invasion story through the filter of young-adult storytelling. But what follows is a story where it’s difficult to care about any of the characters, and that’s the real disaster.

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Spoilers ahead...

In The 5th Wave, Chloe Grace-Moretz plays Cassie, a normal high school girl who parties, likes boys, loves her family and plays soccer. Just then, giant spaceships appear on Earth. Slowly, and in waves, those ships wreak havoc on the population, killing most of them and forcing survivors to fend for themselves. Humanity must now figure out a way to fight back before the final, fifth, wave hits.

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Director J Blakeson goes through the first several waves at a confident, fun pace. The editing and music create a captivating paranoia. Big special effects draw you in to the potential scope of this story, and his overhead camera moves show the action from a unique perspective. Everything is set up well at first, so you’re genuinely excited to see if this alien invasion film will surprise you.

It doesn’t. After a few twists and turns, we realize the bulk of the story is much, much smaller: the parallel telling of Cassie trying to get back to her brother, and her brother living at a military base. Downshifting to a more character driven story like that would be okay if there was actually “character” or “story” to grasp on to. The 5th Wave barely qualifies for either.

Let’s start with story. Cassie spends most of the movie running through the woods and awkwardly flirting with a mysterious boy, Evan, played by Alex Roe. The only real drama in her storyline is whether she’ll heal from an injury, and get back to her brother. We’re really curious about that second one, though, because what’s happening with her brother is so incredibly weird.

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You see, Cassie’s brother Sam (Zackary Arthur) has been taken to a military base where the Army is training kids to fight the aliens. Cutting between these stories feels like changing the channel to a vaguely similar, but definitely different movie. Nothing about this storyline feels in line with the rest of the movie and while it eventually does pay off, it does so in a very nonsensical manner.

Then there are the characters, if you can call them that. As Cassie, Chloe Grace Moretz exhibits a growing charisma, but she doesn’t have a lot to chew on other than “Save your brother” and “This boy is cute.” Any real leaps she takes—like from high school athlete to cold blooded killer—happen suddenly and with forced motivations. Even so she’s the most interesting character, by far.

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As for everyone else, they mostly serve to fill plot needs. Take Evan and Ben (Alex Roe and Nick Robinson), the film’s other two leads. Each starts and ends the movie with basically same demeanor. They may be at a different point in the narrative, with a few new feelings, but that’s it. This is even more upsetting and pronounced when characters played by Maria Bello and Liev Schreiber suffer worse fates. They walk into scenes, deliver lines that move the plot forward, and then leave. There’s nothing dramatic to grasp onto with any of them, and that just makes the film feel incredibly slow.

But this is a sci-fi movie, right? At least there are some cool bad guys and tech to enjoy about, right? No. Not at all. The aliens, not-so-cleverly referred to as “The Others,” have a very minor presence in The 5th Wave. In fact, after the movie’s first act, there are only a handful of shots showing anything alien at all. On a few occasions we see the creatures via an X-ray, but mostly they live inside a human host, who walks around with a gun. That means the action scenes of The 5th Wave are basically just humans running around with guns, and maybe throwing a few punches at other humans. It’s all disappointingly conventional and nothing we haven’t seen before in a million other movies of every genre.

As this is all happening, the film tries to pepper in some interesting but criminally underdeveloped themes. We’re asked to wonder if, like The Others, humans would invade another planet if we had the need. But because the film never shows us this story on a global scale, it doesn’t give us much insight into this question. Then, Cassie’s relationship with Evan raises questions about the purpose and meaning of love. Unfortunately, their conversations on the topic happen at such inopportune times and with such cheesy, melodramatic dialogue, that they become laughable rather than moving.

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Finally, all of these issues are compounded by a realization that, like other YA sagas, The 5th Wave isn’t going to wrap up nicely. It’s book one, a franchise starter, so that excruciating story really is nothing more than setup to avoid telling the story we’re being promised: Humans fighting back against killer alien adversaries. Even the hackneyed love triangle set up for Cassie is only teased in one scene, saving most of the drama for a movie that may never happen.

The 5th Wave is a huge let-down.


Contact the author at germain@io9.com.