Doomsday Reels: The 5th Wave

ReviewsRyan CoveyComment
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The 5th Wave (2016)

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The Director

J Blakeson

The Actors

Chloë Grace Moretz (Cassie Sullivan), Zackary Arthur (Sam Sullivan), Nick Robinson (Ben Parish), Maika Monroe (Ringer), Alex Roe (Evan Walker), Liev Schreiber (Colonel Vosch), Maria Bello (Seargent Reznik), Ron Livingston (Oliver Sullivan)

The Trailer

The Cause

Alien Invasion/EMP/Earthquakes/Floods/Disease/Pod People

The Story

"When you're in high school, just about everything feels like the end of the world.  An early curfew, a final exam, soccer practice.  Turns out, what we thought was the end of teh world wasn't.  There were no messages from our galactic party crashers during the first 10 days.  But pretty soon they had a name.  We called them "the Others."  The Other his us with an electromagnetic pulse that killed all the power on the the planet.  No more engines.  No more electricity.  No more running water.  No more everything we took for granted.  The was the 1st Wave.  At the time, we thought that was it. Then the 2nd Wave hit.  In Ohio, we only had the lake to worry about.  But by the ocean, I can only imagine.  Every coastal city, every island, gone.  There are over 300 billion birds in the world.  That's 75 bird for every person.  Mom said the avaian flu was already one of the world's deadliest viruses.  In the 3rd Wave, the Others modified it.  Mdae it unstoppable.  And the bids spread it across the planet.  Some people were immune to the virus.  And a few people got sick and somehow recovered.  But most people didn't.  Here's how you kill off a species.  First, you take out the easy ones, the weak the exposed.  Kill them as efficiently as possible.  That was the first three Waves.  But even if you bug bomb a house, there's always a few cockroaches left.  Now, we are like those cockroaches.  And the Others are picking us off, one by one.  And because the Others look like us, we can't trust anyone.  How do you rid the world of humans?  First, you rid the humans of their humanity." - Cassie, opening and intermittent narration, edited.

The Rundown

Movies based on young adult books are a complete shot in the dark.  Sure, they're based on known properties that kids and adults are known to eat up but while the Harry Potters and Hunger Games of the world rise to success they stand on the bones of failed franchises like A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Mortal Instruments, Beautiful Creatures, Ender's Game, The Giver, The Golden Compass, Eragon, The Spiderwick Chronicles, The Indian in the Cupboard, Percy Jackson, The Seeker, Cirque du Freak, Inkheart, City of Ember, I Am Number Four, Alex Rider, Beastly, Divergent, Jumper, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Seventh Son, and Vampire Academy.

Why do so many young adult properties fail when young adult novels sell like hot-cakes.  Well for starters it's because most of them suck.  This is not true of all young adult novels, certainly, I enjoy plenty of young adult series and even some of the movies based on them but by taking the understanding that most of the books that become best-sellers do so because the worst people buy them and extrapolating that since teens are worse than adults that the consumers of the most-beloved of young adult fiction are the worst of the worst and that their taste is immediately suspect.  Even if most YA novels weren't awful the fact that they're perceived as awful by most people who don't read them religiously is going to cut into the bottom line.  The final nail in the coffin is that fiction for teens and pre-teens is a lot more permissive with content than movies for the same audience.  Compare the book versions of The Hunger Games and Battle Royale and The Hunger Games is far-and-away the more violent series, but compare the unrated Battle Royale to the studio-friendly PG-13 Hunger Games movies and it's entirely the opposite.  YA books get away with some truly twisted stuff that even most books meant for adults don't touch on but that edge is always sanded away when it comes time to make a movie adaptation, this leads to any of these books that are made into movies feeling samey and homogenized.  There's no stakes because the films aren't going to touch on the difficult material because the parents are actually experiencing these stories with their kids in a movie theater where they're less likely to be in a paperback.

The 5th Wave bucks the trend a little bit, it's still nigh-bloodless but the story necessitates a certain frank look at violence and destruction to really hammer home its point.  And to that end the first 45 minutes of this movie are rough as we follow Cassie (Chloë Grace Moretz) from her normal life as a high school student to a post-apocalyptic survivor who mistakenly guns down an injured man, thinking him armed, in the film's opening scene.

Cassie's telling of the first three waves that decimated humanity and how she lost everyone she knew and loved one bit at a time is heartbreaking and upsetting.  The movie really lets the feeling of futility creep into the viewer's mind as civilization is hit and recovers only to be hit again and again.  It's a wonderfully bleak and dour (and overlong) opening to this kind of property, unfortunately once we catch up to Cassie in the present things fall apart.

Fair warning, I think if you're invested enough in this movie to not want it spoiled you've either already seen it or at least read the book on which it is based.  I'm going to be playing fast and loose with spoilers because I doubt anyone cares at this point and nothing is particularly surprising about the twists.  You have been warned.

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After Cassie details the story of the first three waves (an EMP that shuts down all electrically-operated equipment, a series of Earthquakes that causes massive tidal waves that destroy all coastal and island cities, and a modified bird flu that kills a large chunk of the population and Cassie's mother) she, her brother, and father (Ron Livingston) go to a refugee camp in the woods where they live for a time before a group of soldiers lead by a friendly Colonel (Liev Schreiber) arrives in still-working vehicles and tells them that they're saved.

The soldiers funnel all the children into school buses to be taken to a nearby Air Force base while all the adults are led into the mess hall to be debriefed.  It seems that the aliens that are destroying humanity have found a way to pass as human and they have infiltrated groups of survivors in hopes of killing them off.  The process is easy to detect in children but not in adults so they will be funneled off into camps to be inspected.  Things get expectedly tense and a massacre results, leaving all the non-military adults are gunned down including Cassie's father.  Cassie, who has been left behind when she got off the bus to retrieve her little brother's Teddy Bear, witnesses the whole event and then sets off on foot to find her brother.

Along the way she is shot by one of the Others and wounded, she then wakes up in a farm house being doted over by the sort of laughably statuesque young men who only exist in teenie-bopper soap operas and adaptations of young adult novels.  His name is Evan (Alex Roe) and he's suuuper dull.

Meanwhile, Cassie's high-school crush Ben (Nick Robinson), now sporting the laughable nickname of "Zombie" has been conscripted (along with Cassie's little brother) as a child soldier in a war against the Others.  Zombie leads a squad of adorably stone-faced kids in preparing for war.  Suddenly and arbitrarily the squad is joined by Ringer, a mouthy badass (you can tell by her smoky eye-shadow) with a hilariously childish voice (Maika Monroe) who teaches him how to shoot and survive, she mostly seems to exist so that we won't feel bad for Ben when Cassie starts falling in love with Evan.

Ben's squad is sent into the field to stop the remaining Others using special visors that allows you to see the alien parasite in the brains of the infected.  Even if you haven't seen the Men Against Fire episode of Black Mirror, I think you can figure out what's happening here.

Cassie and Ben figure out that the military are the Others and they're using the child soldiers as the 5h Wave at about the same time and Cassie finds out that Ben is a half-alien sleeper agent from when the aliens visited a long time ago who basically has super powers that none of the other alien-infested humans ever really exhibit.  Ben and Cassie meet at the military base to try and save Cassie's little brother while Evan blows the place to kingdom come only to ghost before the end of the movie.

No real resolution is reached beyond Maria Bello's obnoxious recruiter character being killed and no plot threads are really resolved.  The movie is clearly banking on there being a sequel, but it being two years later and there being no news that seems unlikely.

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Chloë Grace Moretz is one of the finest actors of her generation but this is a really thankless role that could have been played by whatever homogeneous brunette wandered in off a CW show.  Cassie is every terrible YA novel protagonist and though Moretz tries to bring some life to her (mostly in using her distinct facial features to do out-sized reaction shots) there's just not a whole lot to exploit.  Basically the only thing that feels real with Cassie is the bond she has with her little brother.

Nick Robinson does a pretty good job with Ben, he's not a whole lot deeper with Cassie but Robinson gets to show a lot more pathos and vulnerability than Moretz does in her character.  He's a very thoughtful character (it helps that we don't get his boring journal voice-over to tell us what he's thinking like we do with Cassie.)  His chemistry with Zackary Arthur's Sam (a child actor who actually acts like a child is a rarity and I stand by this kid's work in this movie.)

Ron Livingston, Maria Bello, and Liev Schreiber are fine but they feel like they were cast to just give the movie a bit more notoriety among an older audience who is going to know who these three actors are.

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The 5th Wave's greatest strength is its willingness to touch on the ugliness of the subject matter at hand, but it still has a rather milquetoast sensibility about how it handles these things.  For example, what should be the big scene of the film, when the kid-soldiers figure out that they've been tricked and they've been murdering innocent humans at the behest of the alien invaders they don't really let the weight of that sink in.  That should be the biggest moment of the movie but it feels like they're more annoyed at being tricked than they are at having mistakenly murdered a ton of people in a childish pursuit of revenge.  This is especially weird seeing that Maria Bello's initiation ceremony involves making each kid murder an "infected" child of about 10.

The weak backbone of the film coupled with the molasses-paced second act really knock the movie down a few pegs.  It's not Priest-level forgettable and  more along the lines of The Darkest Hour.  There's just not a lot of substance to chew on once the flashbacks are finished.

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Ultimately, while the 5th Wave is a better movie than I expected, that's largely because I expected very little from it.  There are some talented people involved with this movie and I appreciate that it was willing to go to some dark places but the commitment to being just another young adult studio film and the way it leans on a franchise that's likely never going to happen make this movie a fairly empty affair and I can't really reccomend it to anyone.

The Shill

The 5th Wave is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Amazon Instant.

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Next Time on Doomsday Reels

"Promise him an ice-cream, onion, and a good lay every morning on the Ark if he fixes that junk."