It’s easy to see what makes the dystopian young adult genre so successful. For studios, the genre usually has a built-in fan base from books, almost always forms a franchise, and generally requires enough of a budget that the market isn’t too diluted, but one small enough they can easily justify the risk. For the (largely teenage) audience, they let kids indulge in the fantasy of a sudden shift in status quo, a chance to show everyone they could be the hero, save the day where the adults and the system have let them down, and win over that special boy or girl if only given the opportunity. As far as that goes, The 5th Wave ticks every box you’d expect for a successful YA adventure, and for the most part ticks them extremely well. But that’s all it does. The 5th Wave never goes beyond what it needs to get the job done or stand out amongst other films of its ilk. So if you’ve had your fill of the Hunger Games and Divergents of the world, give this one a miss, but if a solid piece of apocalyptic sci-fi fused with teenage melodrama is what you crave, then The 5th Wave is for you.
Based on Rick Yancey’s book of the same name (the first in a planned trilogy), The 5th Wave drops us into the shoes of Cassie Sullivan (ChloÃ« Grace Moretz) and later Ben Parish (Nick Robinson), two former high schoolers trying to survive in a world undergoing a genocidal alien attack. After a mysterious and silent alien ship appears within Earth’s atmosphere, it soon launches four calculated yet devastating attacks that wipe out most of humanity and its infrastructure. As the world braces for the 5th and final attack, Cassie is left a lone and wandering scavenger while Ben is conscripted into what remains of the Army.
What The 5th Wave does best is efficiently establish a dire tone that (mostly) manages to hold despite some cheesy material and goofy sci-fi tropes. The film’s opening is tense and effective, quickly establishing Cassie as a seasoned survivor before bluntly pointing out she’s still a scared kid out of her depth. She is a protagonist in the middle of her transformation, allowing the audience to both look forward to her continued evolution as well us unpacking her traumas already passed. The film then pulls back hard and brings us into Cassie’s pre-invasion life and subjects us to an extended, voice-over filled opening as the world falls apart around her before we eventually catch back up to where the film began. Normally, this slow-moving, exposition-heavy first act would be enough to lose its audience, but the opening does buy the film some points and the variety of the first four waves gets your mind moving just enough to keep you interested until you finally get into the meat of the film.
The early survival-thriller feel of The 5th Wave is surprisingly captivating when the film is able to resist the fluffier elements of the genre. Sadly, you get the sense the studio doesn’t realize this is its strength and is far too eager to move on to the wacky alien material, mandatory love-triangles and anti-authority hoo-ha. As you may have guessed, this is where The 5th Wave slides into a much more forgettable film. There’s nothing really wrong with it, but the second half of the film progressively loses its personality and focuses sharply on hitting its beats and setting up its sequels (which, given where this ends up, look to be much more conceptually generic). Worse is that with the tension and audience interest fading, it becomes more and more difficult to ignore the nagging plot problems and odd scene to scene motivations. Particularly distracting is that the film repeatedly tells us that these kids (and particularly child-soldiers) are essential to this war, while fumbling every explanation as to why. Though I should note, one part of the plot I initially thought ridiculous ended up being a clever little misdirect, so perhaps this is something that gets addressed in a later installment.
Yes, I’m giving a plot-hole a pass because a sequel might address it. Genre flicks are all serialized now, time to accept it and got on with our lives.
So for the teens, tweens, and adults unable to let go of their high school years that love YA, deciding if this is the start of an exciting journey, or just something better than watching The Force Awakens for a fourth time in cinemas, will depend on whether this is a cast you can see yourself getting invested in. To that end, Moretz remains a welcoming presence, easily breathing life into her cookie-cutter character. Moretz is excellent when she is panicked and terrified, banking a touch of reality early on that alleviates the more outlandish material later. Despite the always endearing Moretz, Cassie doesn’t quite fill out as a protagonist to devote yourself to, but the groundwork is there and, box-office willing, she’ll have more time to grow.
Though Cassie is definitely the lead, her counterpart Ben and his fellow militarized youths are a much needed other side to the coin. While Cassie’s story is quite personal and isolated, Ben’s is much more focused on the greater story and the two work wonderfully to distract from the other’s shortfalls. It also gives the movie a chance for more teen-character interaction, which is pretty essential to the genre. That said, while Nick Robinson does a good job leading his side of the story, his merry little squad really aren’t very engaging, and despite how much they are pushing to make Maika Monroe’s Ringer to be a ‘fan-favorite,’ nary a one of them has any real personality or flair. It’s also got to be pointed out that The 5th Wave really isn’t looking for a diverse demographic, as I could count the non-white roles on one hand with fingers to spare.
But despite that one unfortunate oversight, it’s a film that isn’t really guilty of any great sins, nor any real accomplishments. The 5th Wave is a solid, but very familiar, piece of entertainment that’s value is entirely dependent on how in need you are of another dose of young, attractive, white people staring down the end of the world.