The 5th Wave is the latest young adult apocalyptic dystopia of the week. It gets its name from the final stage of the most convoluted and absurd alien invasion plot this side of Ed Wood. Wave 1: shutting off the planet’s power. Wave 2: sending tsunamis crashing into every coast. Wave 3: spreading bird flu everywhere. Wave 4: flying drones and sending out snipers. It seems like any one of those waves could’ve been sufficient to take out the entire human race, but these unseen alien beings either haven’t planned well or are deliberately toying with us. Or maybe they just like echoing Biblical plagues. Who am I to say? The movie tears through these initial waves, any one of which could be an entire disaster movie, with such quickly paced table-setting glossiness that it forgets to find the impact. It’s in a rush to get to the 5th wave: convincing the surviving humans to lose hope and do themselves in.
Per subgenre dictates, we start with a normal teenager, this time a pretty blonde high school senior (Chloe Grace Moretz). Then, soon enough, generic sci-fi elements clear the way for a scenario in which adults are either powerless or domineering and only teenagers can save the day. If you think this sounds like any number of post-Hunger Games knockoffs, you’re right. This one starts with a smidge of interesting thought, transmogrifying senioritis’ valedictory lap finality into an end-of-the-world metaphor, and then quickly descends into popcorn nihilism and cotton candy platitudes. It’s unusually violent for this sort of tween thing – rampant gun brandishing, bloodless sprays of bullets, and roiling catastrophes, as well as gooey close-up impromptu surgeries. And, though its story goes down some moderately weird side roads on the way to predictable beats, it all too rarely comes to life.
Moretz, despite being very good in a variety of roles (from Carrie to Clouds of Sils Maria) and the star driving this vehicle, is shunted to the side for a good portion of the film. Separated from her father (Ron Livingston) and searching for her little brother (Zackary Arthur), she ends up recuperating in a farmhouse after a mysterious hunk (Alex Roe) rescues her. It’s instant romantic tension. Meanwhile, her brother is stuck in a military compound where Liev Schreiber and Maria Bello are training kids to combat the aliens who have begun latching themselves onto human hosts, Body Snatchers style. At this boot camp we find adorable moppets wielding military-grade firearms and enduring war movie montages. A few older kids are there, too, including It Follows’ Maika Monroe, stealing ever scene she’s in with rebellious charisma, Jurassic World’s Nick Robinson as a mopey hero, and Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori as a guy nicknamed Dumbo. Imagine Nicholas Sparks rewrote They Live as a Maze Runner prequel (no politics, more forced sentiment and jumbled mythology) and you’re on the right track. So, yeah, it’s a little weirder than I’d expected.
It’s almost admirably unexpected in the way director J Blakeson (The Disappearance of Alice Creed), from a screenplay adapted from Rick Yancey’s book by Susannah Grant (In Her Shoes), Akiva Goldsman (Insurgent), and Jeff Pinkner (The Amazing Spider-Man 2), ghoulishly churns through large scale (and only partially convincing) calamities to get to the smallest possible scenes where two young people stare at each other in the woods. It discards the waves of alien threats for close moments between teens stuck in the wilderness, or isolated in a child soldier factory. That could be an intriguing small look at a bigger picture, but is instead an uninvolving and weightless perspective. The immediate stakes are so simple – brother and sister need to be reunited – and the larger stakes – saving the planet – are written off as impossible. What a strange mix of brutal conditions and mushy execution, harsh bruising nastiness and gushing sentiment. Overly clean and bright photography throws its artificiality and small thinking into dull obviousness.
That’s what’s ultimately so unsatisfying about The 5th Wave. It strands a good cast in a movie that could’ve really popped with evocative metaphor and a harrowing concept, but fails to really reckon with the implications of its premise, glossing over moral dilemmas. Sure, it features our lead killing an innocent man (we see the same moment twice, even) and a twist that complicates easy morality, but these ideas remain half-buried in the slick formula. Heavy ideas, up to and including the end of the world and the deaths (or potential thereof) of everyone they love, are merely used for superficial weight holding down the edges of a premise so flimsy it threatens to blow away right before our very eyes. By the ending, which resolves the immediate conflicts through convenient luck, then coasts to a limp cliffhanger, I nearly forgot why I had bothered to care in the first place.