Do any YA novels at this point not take place in a vaguely dystopian future, where children are the playthings of evil adults? I ask that because on a cursory level, at least, there’s not much to distinguish The 5th Wave from any number of other adaptations of YA books that have flooded theaters this decade. Of the things that do make The 5th Wave stand out, a few show some early promise, but the overall project is among the lesser films to come out of Hollywood’s adaptation obsession.
Cassie Sullivan (Chloë Grace Moretz) was an ordinary teenage girl, until an alien invasion led to a series of waves that have decimated the human race – among them, knocking out electronics, creating tsunamis, and creating a deadly disease. Now Cassie spends her days and nights in the Ohio area trying to find her brother Sammy (Zackary Arthur), who was rounded up with other kids and teens – also including Cassie’s high school crush, Ben (Nick Robinson) – to serve in the American military’s last attempt to stop the Others, as humans have taken to calling the aliens. Cassie’s journey becomes complicated, though, when she’s shot by someone, then rescued by Evan (Alex Roe), who Cassie can’t find herself trusting.
To The 5th Wave‘s credit, the film embraces the darkness that’s typically only hinted at in films from this genre. The film’s opening scene ends with Cassie killing an innocent man, and she brutally strangles someone else towards the end of the film. The film also pushes the boundaries of its PG-13 rating, with Cassie even dropping an F-bomb at one point. It’s all a legitimately solid way to cover the film’s clearly tight budget.
Unfortunately, these elements can’t cover up the story of the film. The film’s first act includes a lot of exposition, both narrated and spoken on-screen, to set things up. And that’s fine, if not exactly great. But this tendency to throw in new characters and have characters blurt out pertinent information continues all the way through the film. The film briefly introduces Ben in a flashback after the opening scene, but once the film catches up to its opening scene, it frequently shifts between Cassie and Ben. The film also makes sure to introduce Ringer (Maika Monroe), a tough-as-nails girl, onto his team to give him a second potential love interest. In other words, there are not one, but two potential love triangles in this film.
Oh, yes. That first love triangle. It’s obvious that Evan is supposed to be a love interest for Cassie, and that’s before he’s shown bathing himself in slow motion in a lake. There’s a certain amount of creepiness with this setup, though: while Moretz, Robinson and even Monroe to a degree can pass for younger characters, Roe definitely looks like an adult, which makes his eventual sets of revelations about himself and his interest in Cassie both familiar and creepy.
Beyond that, there’s an easiness to the way things progress in this film that makes it feel like the screenwriters were going off of a checklist to make up the story. The lack of complications aren’t new for the YA genre, but this film pushes on that tendency hard. It even extends to the villain, in a way: the film doesn’t set up a proper villain. Not really. The aliens are obvious contenders, but the most we see of them are computer images of something resembling a facehugger, but it doesn’t seem like that’s the entirety of the alien race. Even the military, which seems oppressive in its rounding up of youth, feels small and undefined.
Maybe the filmmakers are assuming that a second film can lay out this information. The film doesn’t end with a cliffhanger, but it does keep a lot of questions up in the air all the same. I don’t think that’s a problem for every film that launches a trilogy (clearly), but it doesn’t work here. Among many other things. There’s some promise at the beginning, but ultimately, The 5th Wave falls in line with many of the potential franchise-starters that have gone on to not make sequels.