Taking its cue from the popularity of the Twilight saga, The Hunger Games, and the Divergent series, the new Young Adult, disaster/sci-fi thriller The 5th Wave is the first of an expected three-part adventure. With an inconclusive fade out designed to hook and cinematically reel you in – it feels like the end of a chapter in the middle of a book rather than a whole novel – you’re left feeling somewhat cheated and worse, caring even less.
The Rick Yancey books may be involving and read well – their popularity with the younger set certainly suggests so – but played out on film, the construct, the same kind of characters we’re beginning to see in these young teenage fantasy thrillers with nicknames such as Teacup, Dumbo, and Zombie in lieu of real names and the easy predictability of all the outcomes make this new addition to the Young Adult movie genre feel annoyingly routine.
There’s a point early in the film where you can pretty much work out everything – and I mean everything – that follows; it’s a moment that sets off every story-telling alarm you’ve ever known, and once you get it, there’s not a single ensuing moment that surprises, and with such a promising setup, The 5th Wave is ultimately a huge disappointment.
When the film begins, the end of the world scenario has already begun. In order to survive, sixteen year-old Cassie (Chloë Grace Moretz) is navigating the mostly abandoned roadways of her local area alone. With gun at the ready, she nervously approaches a rural convenience store in the hope that she’ll find either someone to help her or, at the very least, find something to eat. Instead, she comes across an armed guy hiding in the corner of a store room. In the panic of the moment, unable to tell if this person is friend or foe, Cassie is forced to pull the trigger. “I miss the Cassie I was,” a voice-over informs once she makes the kill, and we flashback to the beginning that will eventually circle back to that same moment not more than forty-five minutes later. It’s a narrative device best used for television to create tension rather than film, though with a teenage target audience raised on the economy of TV narratives, most, I’m sure, won’t notice the difference.
It doesn’t take long for things to happen. With a sudden loss of power, cities and towns are plunged into darkness. Computers stop, cars crash and planes fall from the sky. That’s the First Wave. It’s lights out on Planet Earth. Plus, there’s a large, alien space ship floating over Cassie’s family home. Those aliens are even given a new, mystery inducing title. Everyone refers to them as the Others, which is the kind of things that books of this nature tend to do when creating a new culture of its own. Wouldn’t simply calling them aliens sound less pretentious?
The Second Wave is the issue of water. Coastlines around the world are hit with devastating tsunamis knocking down tall buildings and famous landmarks while drowning another chunk of the world’s population. There’s also a third wave where those who survived the first two are now hit with pestilence; a deadly plague carried by the birds, followed by a fourth, which is a little harder to explain without giving away spoilers, then a fifth, which has yet to happen but its meaning will be revealed towards the end, though if you’re astute and you’ve seen enough films or read enough books, you’ll get it during the events of the fourth.
Part of the fun of disaster films is watching the catastrophe strike. We love to see things blow up or buildings topple or tidal waves wreaking havoc. Yet, strangely, even though The 5th Wave has all of these, it doesn’t seem particularly interested in them. All of the events – or the waves – happen within the first half hour, and they’re only glimpsed with no real tension employed. They’re things that merely happen with no accompanying wow factor or thrills and spills. The film is more interested in having unlikely teenage characters acting bravely and fending for themselves in the woods or along deserted, vehicle discarded highways that look like left-over set pieces from The Walking Dead.
Knowing that all power is gone and that every computer, including those that today operate cars, buses, planes and trains, no longer function, the sight of some army guys suddenly turning up at a survival camp in trucks and yellow school buses is immediately questionable. Someone in the camp comments on how the vehicles are operating when the whole world’s transport has come to a halt, but an answer is never addressed, and, I presume, we’re never meant to think of it again. All instincts point to something suspicious with the army, led by Colonel Vosch (Live Schrieber). When Vosch separates the children from the adults and ships them off to another camp, then tells the remaining adults that after all the misery that has already occurred, there’s now a fifth and final wave on the way, you’ll probably start thinking that with the absence of any kind of communication available, how does he know there’s a fifth wave coming, and more important, how does he know it’s the final one? Once he warns that the aliens can now take human form and are living among us, ready to strike, guess who he’s talking about. Once you’ve got that, you’ve got everything, including what form the mysterious fifth wave is going to take.
Fortunately, the film has one saving grace, and that’s Moretz. With ability beyond her age, she manages to add weight to the routine. But others are not so lucky. Even though his actions cause the deaths of many, Liev Schreiber adds little menace or any sense of real danger as the film’s principle villain, while Maika Monroe comes off even worse. As the independently minded, tough-girl known only as Ringer with the punk look and low voice, Monroe – good in both The Guest and It Follows – is totally miscast. Dying her usual blonde hair black, making it spiky and circling her eyes with thick black lining does nothing. With her youthful good looks and slight build, there is nothing rough-around-the-edges about her that spells she was ever born trouble or that she could ever really handle herself in the way the street-wise part requires. It’s just one more superficial element in an already derivative filled YA adventure.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 112 Minutes Overall Rating: 4 (out of 10)