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5th Version of the Same Film

Columbia Pictures
 112 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed byJ Blakeson 
Starring: Chloe Grace Moretz, Alex Roe, Nick Robinson
5th Wave

YA franchises have been a godsend for various movie studios over the last few years. After the success of of the Twilight films, the studios turned their attention to post-apocalyptic science fiction franchises, starting with The Hunger Games and following, with increasingly diminished creative and financial success, with Divergent, The Maze Runner, and what will probably be a one-off, The Giver. Now, the phenomenon has seemingly hit rock bottom with The 5th Wave, a technically adept but extremely derivative, by-the-numbers movie based on a series by Rick Yancey.


Actually, The 5 th Wave isn’t all post-apocalyptic. Instead, it begins in a small Midwestern town on the day before an alien invasion. Cassie Sullivan (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a typical teenager who is close to her younger brother Sam (Zackary Arthur) and has a crush on football hero Ben Parish (Nick Robinson). But then a series of giant flying saucers appear and begin a series of attacks designed to decimate the earth’s population. Like the Ten Plagues of Egypt, in short order, the aliens destroy the world’s power grid with EMP pulses, launch devastating earthquakes and tsunamis, unleash a new strain of bird flu that’s fatal to millions, and send out snipers to pick off the various survivors.


Soon, Cassie, Sam, and their father (Ron Livingston) have to evacuate their homes and move into an Army resettlement camp. That proves to be a disastrous experience, as, in a scene that’s blatantly patterned after the Nazi concentration camp experience, the adults are gathered into a large assembly area and asked to surrender their weapons. When some of them balk, a shootout with the Army ensues, resulting in the deaths of all the adults. Cassie winds up being separated from Sam, who is sent off to a new facility by the Army. Unbeknownst to Cassie, Sam is on the same bus with Ben Parish. She then sets off to find her brother.


Once the remaining children and teenagers arrive at their new home, they find it is actually a form of boot camp. The Army commander, Colonel Vosch (Liev Schreiber), and a medical technician, Sgt. Reznik (Maria Bello), soon inform Ben that the upcoming fifth and final wave has already occurred, with aliens who appear human killing those they come across. However, children and teenagers, aided by a tracking device Reznik implants in Ben and the others, can spot these aliens. Mankind’s best hope for survival is thus to arm and train enough young soldiers to take on the aliens.


While Ben and Sam are in training, Cassie has her own set of adventures. At first, she is on her own, crossing nearly deserted highways where occasional looters and bandits threaten here, in scenes reminiscent of TV’s The Walking Dead. Eventually, however, she finds safety after a fashion when, after being wounded, she is rescued by Evan Walker (Alex Roe), who is trying to maintain a low profile while living on the family farm in the middle of nowhere. As soon as Cassie gets better, however, she recruits Evan to help her reach the camp where her brother was taken.


The first half hour of 5th Wave resembles virtually every CGI-laden disaster film of the last 20 years rolled into one, beginning with the arrival of the alien spaceships, which seem to be merely the more technologically proficient progeny of the ones in Independence Day.  The disaster sequences are technically quite proficient, with some dazzling tsunami scenes, but compressing all of them in the film’s first act essentially results in a big waste of Wave’s effects budget. In addition, although director J Blakeman does try to show a bit of what Cassie and her family suffered, that impact quite naturally is diminished by the relatively brief amount of screen time given to these scenes.


Once the disaster dust figuratively settles, Wave settles into its primary storyline, one that borrows profusely, and not too subtly, from many predecessors. The biggest similarity between Wave and the earlier YA franchises is the lead actress. Chloe Grace Moretz is an attractive blonde, somewhat similar in appearance to Jennifer Lawrence of Hunger Games and Shailene Woodley of Divergent. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine her in either of those franchises if they were to begin filming today. And she’s also got a younger sibling to whom she’s attached and two potential suitors, just as Katniss Everdeen had in Hunger Games. Further, any adult who isn’t a family member is probably a villain in the vein of Donald Sutherland’s character in Hunger Games.


The 5th Wave also owes a great deal to other influences as well. The movie opens with a scene that takes place chronologically in the middle of the film, in which Cassie encounters a stranger at a deserted convenience store on a deserted highway. The scene could just as easily have taken place in any episode of The Walking Dead. Indeed, the entire idea of an armed resistance to seemingly impregnable alien invaders recalls the recent TV series Falling Skies and the notion of aliens who look like humans dates back even further, to the 1960’s series The Invaders.


Not having read Rick Yancey’s source novel or its sequel, I don’t know how much of this overly familiar material was in the novel originally or how much was added by the screenwriters. However, even if the book was extremely derivative, that’s no excuse for an experienced group of writers, including Susannah Grant and Akiva Goldsman, not to try to give viewers something they haven’t already seen numerous times previously. Further, Blakeman’s shooting style emphasizes these similarities


The 5th Wave isn’t a bad movie, and if it had been made a decade ago, it probably would have felt a lot fresher (and been a lot more successful). Moretz does a good job in a role that’s not as challenging as it should be, and old pros Schreiber and Bello do not disappoint. However, Wave feels more like the pilot for a television series than a feature film. It may be that the entire dystopian YA genre is simply played out, since several recent movies have had disappointing box office results. But The 5th Wave does not give moviegoers any reason to turn that trend around. Instead, it feels more like a mere ripple. 

Read other reviews of The 5th Wave:


The 5th Wave (2016) on IMDb