“The 5th Wave”: Awash In Cliche

There is a grim, dystopian future waiting for humanity. It is a future with no plucky, teenage girls to save it. There are no metaphors delivered with a hammer, no third film adaptation divided in two — and perhaps worst of all — no girl-guy-guy love triangles. It is truly a dark day for…

Actually, you know what? That sounds like a great future. Can we go there now? 

Yes, that's right. It's time for another young adult scifi series to get a dutiful screen adaptation. This time it's The 5th Wave, based on the book of the same name by Rick Yancey. Our hero is Cassie  (Chloe Grace Moretz), who is trying to survive in an Earth that has been ravaged by alien invaders with a series of destructive events referred to as waves. Cassie is searching for her little brother Sam (Zackary Archer), who has been taken to a nearby military base where he and the other surviving children are being trained to fight the invaders. Along the way, Cassie meets the other two points of her trope-enforced love triangle (Alex Roe as the mysterious Sam and Nick Robinson as the familiar Ben) and a few trope-enforced supporting characters (like Maika Monroe's spitfire Ringer). Liev Schreiber also shows up playing a military colonel who is clearly the antagonist because he's played by a squinting, permanently-stubbled Liev Schreiber. 

There's very little to distinguish The 5th Wave from all the other young adult dystopias that came before it. There's very little to distinguish it from a forgotten script from the “maybe” pile of The Outer Limits for that matter. It's a hodgepodge of elements taken from decades of genre films before it from as far back as Roger Corman's It Conquered The World and as recent as…well, pick any young adult series from the last 10 years that has a film adaptation. Yes, even Twilight. The alien invasion (which takes up most of Act One) is like a mockbuster version of Independence Day, while the kids-in-the-military aspect (most of Act Two) is a de-fanged and sanitized Starship Troopers.

J Blakeson's direction is adequate for the material but rarely inspired; there are occasional moments of arthouse pretension that add a small dash of color to an otherwise desaturated palette. The script rarely rises above the level of a Syfy series pilot being burned off between Sweeps Weeks, though. The narrative hangs almost entirely on a series of coincidences and cheap contrivances that wouldn't be so glaringly obvious if the film had even a hint of self-awareness. There seems to be huge chunks of the background missing, so only the main characters are given to us in any sort of context. Plenty of relatively important character-building moments seem to take place off-screen, a prime example being a skirmish between Ben and Ringer for control of their squadron that's all buildup and no payoff. The machete-like editing almost always cuts things off just as they start to build momentum.  

The only genuine life that comes from the film at all originates from the cast, primarily from Chole Grace Moretz, who was apparently the first and only choice for the role of Cassie. She's no Jennifer Lawrence (and let's face it, who is) but she gets the job done, and her dedication to the character and the material is sincere enough to win the audience over. If only she could portray trauma better; her emotional outbursts feel far too much like Big Acting. She's still good enough to sell the non-existent chemistry between her and either of her two romantic interests, however, both of whom make Gale and Peeta look positively exotic. The only other characters who rise above the material are Maika Monroe, who injects more personality into Ringer than the script requires, and a pulled-taut, scenery-chewing, slightly Southern Mario Bello as a military officer who's even more obviously villainous than Liev Schrieber's Colonel Vosch. Which is good, because any threat Vosch might have is undercut by Schrieber sleep-walking through every one of his scenes. 

The film's big twist can be seen coming a mile away for anyone with even the slightest bit of genre savvy, but it still adds a bit of energy to what is otherwise a completely boilerplate and often slipshod production. When the end credits song — the belting ballad “Alive”, performed by Sia and co-written with Adele — has more drama and excitement than the two hours before it, maybe it's a sign that it's time to put down the dystopia for a while and move on. I mean, even Katniss Everdeen got time off once in a while. Don't we deserve the same?

FBOTU Score: 4 out of 10 / C-