Cassie Sullivan (Chloë Grace Moretz) is just a normal teenager, one who pines for her football-star classmate Ben (Nick Robinson) and acts as a loving big sis to her brother Sam (Zackary Arthur). But her simple life is interrupted by the sudden arrival of a monstrous UFO, which sends the people of Earth into a panic. The alien mothership, which looks like leftover CGI scraps from District 9, settles over the cultural and economic center of the globe -- Dayton, OH -- which also happens to be the nearest city to the Sullivan clan. The extraterrestrial visitors, cleverly nicknamed "the Others" by humanity, begin a calculated effort to eradicate our race through increasingly cataclysmic waves of attacks.
Cassie is eventually separated from Sam when military officials arrive at their refugee camp and she stays behind. Curiously (or not, if you've seen one of these YA films before), the army rounds up all of the kids from the camp and busses them to a military base for invasive screenings and eventual combat training. The military reveals that the Others can inhabit human hosts, making the invaders indistinguishable from the remaining population. As she heads toward the base to save her brother, Cassie comes across Evan Walker (Alex Roe), aka Brooding Hot Guy With a Six Pack, who promises to help her.
Helmed by neophyte director J Blakeson (whose only previous feature was 2009's The Disappearance of Alice Creed), The 5th Wave was adapted from novelist Rick Yancey's 2013 young-adult best-seller. Sony snatched up the rights to Yancey's book series early on, hoping it would lead to a trilogy of adaptations. So, here we are again with another YA universe to discover on the silver screen. Moretz has already given a number of spirited performances in her relatively short career (she was born in 1997), and she fills the role of the gutsy heroine with ease. Her voice-over work also helps move the sometimes stagnant plot along, and she's game enough to convey a range of emotions amid the turmoil of her surroundings.
Around the hour mark, you'll start to notice that the script has shifted its focus to developing the ancillary characters in The 5th Wave. Moretz is absent from the screen for long stretches of time, forcing viewers to endure scenes of military posturing and child soldiers being trained. It becomes abundantly clear that the movie is desperately trying to build a franchise by getting audiences invested in these characters.
Robinson was impressive in his leading turn in Being Charlie, which screened at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. But the script here gives him little room to show off his charm or flex his dramatic chops. The same can be said for It Follows breakout star Maika Monroe, who's reduced to the paper-thin role of a bad-ass character known as Ringer. The 5th Wave boasts a pretty impressive cast of both youngsters and reliable veterans (including Liev Schreiber, Maria Bello, and Ron Livingston), but everyone is hamstrung by the simplistic, melodramatic tone of the YA genre.
The plot twists of The 5th Wave are about as subtle as the brain-sucking aliens who act as the villains. Co-written by Akiva Goldsman, Susannah Grant, and Jeff Pinkner, the script offers hints of the gloomy, postapocalyptic flick it could have been, but ultimately succumbs to teen romance and boilerplate notions of rebellion. It's a pretty transparent attempt to make the talented Moretz the next Jennifer Lawrence or Shailene Woodley via the route of a young-adult franchise, yet The 5th Wave is merely a familiar exercise in disaster porn and saccharine storytelling. But if the money is right and these young stars continue to flourish in other vehicles, expect the 6th and 7th Waves to follow shortly.