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Chloë Grace Moretz in The 5th Wave.
Chuck Zlotnick—Columbia Pictures

Why do contemporary teenagers like futuristic dystopias so much? You could make an argument about how American kids today, growing up post-9/11, are so used to the threat of the unthinkable that it comforts them to believe in heroes who can survive against all odds. Yet the simpler and more universal answer is probably that young adulthood is so unpleasant—rife with mountains of homework and stupid love problems—that an imagined future of hunger games and scorch trials doesn’t look so bad. Or as Cassie, the lead character of The 5th Wave, puts it—even though “an early curfew, a final exam, soccer practice” may seem like the end of the world, they’re really not.

Cassie is played by Chloë Grace Moretz, and her subtlety and luminous charm make her the best thing about The 5th Wave, which is based on the first book in Rick Yancey’s 5th Wave trilogy of young adult novels. In The 5th Wave, the beginning of the end is the appearance of a large, jagged space ship—a silent behemoth that looks as if it’s covered with pencil-lead shavings—hovering above the Earth’s surface. No one knows what the aliens inside, who will come to be called “the Others,” want. Really, what could they possibly want? The planet? Nah. But oh, how wrong humans can be! It turns out the Others really do want the earth for their very own, and they have a multi-stage plan for getting it. They start by cutting off the electricity and making planes fall from the sky; next come horrific earthquakes and tidal waves, followed by a super-duper killer version of avian flu. The fifth stage of their attack involves mind control, child soldiers and Liev Schreiber.

Meanwhile, Moretz’s Cassie suffers all manner of end-of-the-world indignities, such as having to scrounge around for supplies in deserted convenience stores (a staple end-of-days pastime) and believing she’ll never again see the boy she likes, Ben (Nick Robinson). One or two nice things happen: She’s wounded and rescued by a mysterious hunk (played by Alex Roe), and at one point she gets to watch him splash his naked torso in a cool, glittering Midwestern stream. This end-of-the-world business isn’t all work and no play.

But The 5th Wave can barely distinguish itself from other recent teen-dystopia dramas (like The Hunger Games series, which at least has some colorful characters in its court, not to mention Jennifer Lawrence) or other disaster movies too numerous to name. Directed by J Blakeson (whose previous credits include the 2009 The Disappearance of Alice Creed), it just moves along with benumbed dutifulness, ticking off predictable plot points, like the stock search for the lost little brother (played by Zackary Arthur). Moretz gives the movie whatever warmth it has, though not even she can give it a real pulse. But The 5th Wave begins its real descent into hopelessness when Maria Bello, a marvelous actress, appears in distressingly harsh red lipstick and unflattering slicked-back hair, playing a hard-ass Army sergeant. If you can’t think of anything better to do with a performer like Bello, it really is all over. Just hand the planet over to the aliens. They can have it.

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