In M.T. Anderson’s Kirkus-starred YA SF novel, Landscape With Invisible Hand, aliens known as the vuvv, who resemble “granite coffee tables,” came to Earth some years ago and offered humans amazing healthcare and labor-saving technology in exchange for “rights to the Earth’s electromagnetic fields and some invisible quantum events.” However, as Adam Campbell, the novel’s earthling teenage narrator, points out, “no one thought about the fact that all that tech would be owned by someone and would be behind a paywall.” A new movie version of this offbeat alien-invasion tale—starring Asante Blackk (When They See Us), Kylie Rogers (Beau Is Afraid), and Tiffany Haddish (The Kitchen)—premieres in theaters on Aug. 18.

In the book, a billion people were thrown out of work as a result of the new vuvv tech—so they had no money to pay for any of the marvelous things that the aliens provided. Now the wealthiest earthlings live in houses that float through the sky while many in poverty scavenge through rich folks’ trash on the surface; others, including Adam’s single mother, compete desperately for low-paying service jobs. Adam’s mom rents out part of the family’s Rhode Island house to lodgers, including teenager Chloe Marsh, who soon becomes Adam’s portrait subject. (He’s a talented painter.) Before long, they’re dating, and broadcasting their relationship in real time to a vuvv audience who pays them by the minute. Later, when Adam and his family are hit with an expensive vuvv lawsuit, he pins his hopes on winning an art contest run by the aliens—while running a 104-degree fever from a gastrointestinal infection he can’t afford to treat.

Anderson’s unique story presents aliens who aren’t leveling cities with laser cannons but wrecking lives through the free market. Along the way, it offers a scathing critique of capitalism that continually surprises. Throughout, the author takes risks to challenge his audience; for example, his protagonist, Adam, has a sardonic sense of humor, as many YA heroes do, but he also has a chronic intestinal ailment—brought on by untreated water, due to vuvv austerity measures—that results in constant flatulence, a graphically described episode of humiliating incontinence, and a ghastly infection. In many dystopian dramas, love conquers all; in this one, Adam and Chloe break up and, shockingly, stay that way. Readers hoping for an Independence Day ending, in which the aliens are driven away by righteous human rebels, will be sadly disappointed; the heroes of this book are just doing their best not to starve. Indeed, the ending is a breathtaking surprise—satisfying, subversive, challenging, and unexpectedly hopeful.

The film, by contrast, feels far less courageous. Adam’s extreme IBS-like illness, for instance, has disappeared in this adaptation; apparently, the reality of this was a bit too real for the filmmakers. This is disappointing, because one of the most affecting scenes in the novel involves a desperately ill Adam waiting in line, and in vain, to get vuvv healthcare from a free-clinic ship that lands once a month in Boston Common; as it turns out, the aliens could instantly cure him—if only he and his family could afford it. The movie also lacks the conviction to keep Adam and Chloe apart; one senses the invisible hand of a producer, giving notes to writer/director Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds). Onscreen, it seems, love must always triumph.

The movie also adds new elements, apparently to give Haddish—the most famous name in the cast—more to do. Most oddly, her character, Adam’s mother, enters into a fake marriage with a vuvv to get the aliens to drop the aforementioned lawsuit. (The extraterrestrial, it seems, wants to experience and study human domestic life.) This leads to several predictably awkward scenes and a  moment of physical comedy that seems to have drifted in from another movie. The film’s ending also feels pat and predictable—and worlds away from the book’s final swerve.

If one separates the film from its source, though, there’s plenty to recommend it. Blackk is immensely likable as Adam, which papers over a lot of the film’s flaws, and Rogers, as Chloe, is impressively charming and steely, by turns. Haddish is unsurprisingly great during the movie’s lighter moments, but she also effectively gets across her character’s highly practical, get-things-done manner. The bizarre vuvv, thanks to the efforts of visual effects supervisor Erik-Jan de Boer (Okja), are stunningly realistic; the portrayal of their method of communication—rubbing their fins together to make weird, scratchy noises—is very cool, indeed. One only wishes that all this creativity was in the service of something a bit braver.

David Rapp is the senior Indie editor.