Is The 5th Wave Hollywood’s most zeitgeist-y YA adaptation yet? In place of totalitarian governments or societal factions, the J Blakeson-directed pic, an adaptation of Rick Yancey’s bestseller, paints a brutally matter-of-fact portrait of human civilization torn asunder by global terror, as wrought by unseen alien enemies.
Particularly during its grim first half-hour, parallels to real-life, international terrorist attacks run rampant, with scenes set in refugee camps and quarantine zones. In The 5th Wave‘s dark and dangerous world, a mysterious alien race, dubbed the Others, has arrived on Earth, hovering above cities in menacing spaceships and unleashing wave after wave of devastation – an electromagnetic pulse that wipes out all technology, mega-destructive tidal waves, an ultra-lethal strain of bird flu, Body Snatchers-esque infiltration – on the human race, with all the mercy of an exterminator dropping bug bombs. Their motives are almost beside the point, given how little recourse humanity has against such calamitous violence.
The suddenness of those attacks, and the harsh pragmatism with which Blakeson depicts them, leaves a pit in one’s stomach. More than most other mainstream YA adaptations in recent years, The 5th Wave dwells on the traumas of terror and dislocation, both with its invasion conceit (an extraterrestrial riff on noted scholar David Rapoport’s four waves of modern terrorism theory) and realistic characterization of its teen protagonist, Cassie (Chloë Grace Moretz), first seen shooting a stranger while in panic mode during the film’s crackerjack opener.
Establishing the film’s narrow yet engaging lens (with communications knocked out, all Cassie is focused on is in her immediate sphere), that fight-or-die practicality also sets the tone, at least at first. Cassie, simultaneously hardened and horror-struck by her new reality, is no push-over, and such desperate times challenge her to learn survival skills on the go while keeping her grief and fear contained. Of course, there’s also a ticking time bomb in play: Cassie’s younger brother Sammy (Zackary Arthur) has been recruited by a gruff colonel (Liev Schreiber) who aims to turn children into soldiers ruthless enough to combat the Others. (The 5th Wave‘s take on the militarization of children for political purposes is as interesting and deftly handled as its disturbingly familiar setup.)
Once Cassie strikes out on her own, determined to rescue her brother, the film’s more derivative parts come into play. Shot through the leg by an enemy sniper (presumably an Other in human form), she’s nursed back to health (though stays limping for the rest of the movie, in one of a few realistic touches) by the mysterious, hunky Evan Walker (Alex Roe). This loner, who has secrets of his own, accompanies her on her journey to the military base long enough for a predictable romance to blossom.
Though The 5th Wave‘s script (by Susannah Grant, Akiva Goldsman, and Jeff Pinkner) keeps Cassie relatively self-possessed throughout even that segment of the movie, it’s still a tad disappointing to see such a badass heroine distracted from her end-of-the-world mission by a boy toy. And unfortunately, with Cassie’s high school crush Ben Parish (Nick Robinson) coincidentally still in the picture as the noble leader of Sammy’s military squad, a love triangle in the surely planned sequel seems inevitable.
A third-act twist involving the nature of the titular fifth wave continues the film’s unfortunate habit of thinking it’s far more original than it actually is. Though many of the ideas percolating inside its head are intriguing, The 5th Wave develops with both hands tied behind its back. It tries to raise lots of questions about its villains (answers will be saved for the sequel, natch) and work in the romance so blatantly (does Evan chop wood in the most masculine way possible, and strip off for a lakeside skinny dip to reveal Abercrombie abs? You betcha) that it renders the screenplay clunky in some places, and silly in others.
What saves the movie, aside from its modern undercurrents, is Moretz. The actress (finally in a great teen role after the abysmal If I Stay) is absolutely brilliant here, anchoring the pic with more pathos and personality than anyone in the YA dystopian genre has shown since Jennifer Lawrence in the first Hunger Games. It’s a physical role, and an emotional one, that she takes to like a moth to flame. Depicting terror, confusion and wiry resolve, sometimes all at once, is a considerable challenge for any actor, and Moretz pulls it off with panache.
The star’s two male supports are both resolutely solid without quite rising to her level. Roe can’t fully sell his cheesy lines or any of the transformations in Evan’s character, while Robinson – whose character has a dead-eyed stare that earns him the nickname Zombie – gets short shrift, but radiates warm charisma whenever on screen. The 5th Wave‘s second-best character is actually sharp-tongued woman-warrior Ringer (Maika Monroe, unrecognizable but awesome), a new addition to Ben and Sammy’s squadron who radiates punkish poise and sullen anger, and whose introduction comes during a sideplot in which that squadron is trained to go kill Others in a bombed-out American city.
The 5th Wave doesn’t leave enough time to fully realize any of its supporting characters, though. Its 112 minutes, many of which are spent on setup, fly by fast, yet the movie can’t quite sustain its opening’s whiplash-inducing momentum once it settles into a familiar, point-A-to-point-B narrative groove. In of itself, that’s not a bad thing – Blakeson ensures few scenes end up dragging, and the actors keep the ones that do alive. But this is another YA adaptation that busies itself with planning a follow-up, to its own detriment.
Audiences will be able to pinpoint the exact moment at which The 5th Wave starts to buckle under its franchise obligations, as well as the debts it owes to recent entries in this genre, from Kevin MacDonald’s more nightmarish How I Live Now to Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game adaptation. But thoroughly worked-out as its parts may be, the film is lean and effectively crafted. Add in some surprising grit, political commentary and a female protagonist who strikes the perfect balance between tough and tender, and The 5th Wave has much more going for it than its crap-FX advertising campaign has suggested. With Dirty Grandpa looming over it at the box office, there’s no telling whether the film will make enough to warrant its sequel – but creatively, it’s already earned it.
Bolstered by the sublime Chloë Grace Moretz and a surprising refusal to cushion the brutality of its setup, this dystopian detour is entertaining and engrossing despite its familiar parts.