One of the more interesting ideas in The 5th Wave results from one of the titular waves, an offensive strike from the ominous aliens that seek to wipe out humanity. After destruction, pestilence, darkness, floods, and faults, the humans have one more thing ripped from them: the ability to trust each other. If they see another human, another lone survivor, they have to run. Run in the opposite direction. Run away as far and fast as they can.
That’s pretty much what this movie does when a good idea stumbles into sight — that particular idea included.
Adapted from Rick Yancey’s young-adult novel of the same name, The 5th Wave doesn’t come close to reaching the heights of its source material. Yancey’s book imagines an alien invasion that comes in, you guessed it, waves: first a cut of all the power, then cracks along fault lines that destroy the coasts, then an avian plague, then a stealth invasion, all leading up to the final wave of the title. That’s not to say that the novel, as it exists on the page, is a work of great genius. It hits all the beats you expect from a genre that’s become a mini-industry all its own. But it’s fairly good at what it does, and couples the familiar tropes — love triangles, hunky mysterious boys, absent or villainous adults, implied sex and slightly more explicit violence — with a few unique ideas, a compelling character or two, and some genuinely scary stuff.
Unfortunately, director J. Blakeson’s effort takes the silly, predictable nonsense and runs with it, leaving most of the good ideas behind in the dust. Worse still, it banishes them to expository monologues, taking huge character moments — moments of realization, terror, anger, and even joy — and condemning them to the overwrought speeches that pepper the script like the cars abandoned on silent highways across the world. Blakeson and screenwriters Susannah Grant, Akiva Goldsman, and Jeff Pinkner don’t seem to care much about telling the story. They’re just checking off the boxes.
One of those boxes: a scrappy young heroine who triumphs despite it all. In The 5th Wave, it’s Cassie Sullivan, as played by the normally delightful Chloë Grace Moretz. It’s not Moretz’s fault that she’s served such weak tea. When given moments that matter — an opening sequence, for example, that centers on raiding an abandoned convenience store and discovering a seemingly-wounded survivor — she mostly rises to the occasion, albeit hindered by some of the aforementioned silliness. (Nail polish, eyeliner, and blow-dryers all made it through the apocalypse, apparently.) But she’s a winning performer and does her best with what she’s given, though admittedly, it isn’t much.
She’s also not helped by one of the aforementioned hunky hunks. Alex Roe plays Evan Walker, a mysterious lumberjack type with pretty eyes and huge arms and basically no charisma. It’s difficult to blame that on the performer, since he’s given almost nothing to do but stare and run. Still, while Moretz makes the most of her share of the schlock, Roe doesn’t, sleepwalking through declarations and confessions and occasional sessions of wood-cutting — not a metaphor, he really chops wood, in a flannel shirt and everything — as his storyline with Moretz races toward its obvious twist. It’s predictable in the book and far more predictable here. They couldn’t have telegraphed it harder if they’d used Morse code.
The other point in the YA triangle does a little better, though he, too, gets screwed by the screenplay. Nick Robinson (Jurassic World) plays Ben Parish, a high school quarterback (and secret object of Cassie’s affection before, you know, the aliens ruin everything) whose family dies offscreen after the plague descends. He winds up being trained by the intimidating Colonel Vosch (Liev Schreiber, phoning it in) and slightly unhinged Sergeant Reznik (Maria Bello, much better but forced into some thoroughly impractical makeup) as a literal boy soldier, leading a squadron of other kids — some quite young, though most aged up from the book — through training and eventually into battle. This storyline has the most promise, but like every fairly promising plot, the film gives it short shrift. That’s actually being generous; Blakeson just goes through the motions here. It’s as though he thinks he can sum up the horrors of war — and not just of any war, but one fought by children — with a single, interminable shot of a teddy bear abandoned in the street. How hard is it to make the sight of armed, militaristic, and still terrified children upsetting? Pretty hard, apparently.
Most of the moments that work, however fleeting, seem to occur in spite of the film’s best efforts to squash them. Robinson leads a little sing-along that captures more in 30 seconds than nearly all the other scenes combined. Fellow soldier Ringer (Maika Monroe, also condemned to garish makeup — seriously, who thought, “I know, let’s make sure all the women keep their eyeliner supplies well-stocked even though they can barely find water”?) has a few bits of fun, badass spikiness. And as Cassie’s doomed parents, the criminally underutilized Ron Livingston (Office Space) and Maggie Siff (Mad Men) manage to stir up some emotion, presumably because they know that acting is important.
But for the most part, Blakeson’s dull, humorless film plays to the lowest common denominator. Stories for young adults don’t have to be for everyone. Tell a story that caters to one demographic and no other, if that floats your boat. But Blakeson and company don’t seem interested in actually entertaining young people, and they certainly don’t want to make them think. They just want the money, thanks. Cough up the cash, take a seat, switch off your brains, and enjoy — or at least watch — the show.