The 5th Wave (2016)
Four waves of increasingly deadly alien attacks have left most of Earth decimated. Cassie is on the run, desperately trying to save her younger brother.
Directed by J Blakeson. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 1h 52min.
January 21, 2016
Although I try to go into every film with some semblance of an open mind, if there is one genre I approach with cynicism and not a scintilla of trepidation, it is the recent trend of YA (Young Adult) lit adaptations. If the (relative) high-water marks for the sub-genre of fantasy/sci-fi/horror/dystopian future adaptations remain the trilogies of The Hunger Games and The Lord of the Rings (itself overshadowed by its underwhelming The Hobbit prequels), those are powerful anomalies in a vast universe of further-diminishing returns. For every The Giver, it seems, there is an endless supply of Vampire Academy's or The Host's, and for every Hunger Games trilogy, there's ten or twenty Divergent or Twilight series waiting for teenage girls and boys to plop down their money for a ticket or two.
Imagine my surprise then at The 5th Wave, a better-than-average tale of yet another ordinary teenage girl whose world is literally turned upside down by supernatural or alien forces which create a dystopian near-future landscape for her to navigate with the aplomb of a video game character and the thoughtfulness of ... well, a teenager in a decently-written book.
Chloe Grace Moretz is Cassie Sullivan, a small town Ohio teen who lives a quiet, happy existence with her doctor mother (Maggie Siff of Sons of Anarchy) and protective father (Ron Livingston), and a young doe-eyed brother named Sammy (Zackary Arthur). Then one day, a large and multi-pointed object appears in the sky. Cassie is in class when the first wave comes. An electromagnetic pulse saps the power from the entire planet, with everything from cell phones to lights spontaneously turning off, cars crashing into each other and airplanes falling from the sky. Soon after, the second wave results in tsunamis wiping out coastal cities and islands everywhere (this is where the bulk of the special F/X budget must've gone, as so much of the film is so low key otherwise). A third wave comes in the form of plague, which takes millions of survivors including Cassie's mother. In the fourth wave, snipers roam the land, stalking and taking out any survivors they come across. The story picks up with the fifth wave being imminent.
At this point, Cassie's father rounds up her and her brother and takes them to a refugee camp in the woods. Then, one day, salvation. A group of army trucks arrive, ostensibly to take the children to another location and the soldiers round up the parents in a barn to brief them on the situation. However, one angry and worried parent pulls a gun and a massacre ensues. Meanwhile, Cassie goes back to the camp for her brother's stuffed bear and the school bus evacuating all the children leaves without her. All of this is overseen by the mercurial Colonel Vosch (Liev Schreiber), a tough, stern savior-seeming fellow who promised the parents they would be reunited with their kids after the briefing but may be further involved than he lets on.
At roughly this point, the narrative splinters, following first a scared but resolved Cassie through the wreckage of forests and streets around her small town, and then her high school crush Ben Parish (Nick Robinson of The Kings of Summer and Jurassic World) as he's carted off to an Air Force Base with all the other kids (including young Sammy, Cassie's brother) for training to fight against the alien force, known only as "the Others" (itself a reference to Lost, on the specificity scale this is roughly right up there with "the Strangers" of Alex Proyas' Dark City).
These two aren't alone, of course, as they naturally meet up with fellow survivors. Cassie is shot in the leg by a sniper and rescued by a mysterious blond, blue-eyed farm boy called Evan Walker (Alex Roe), who (wait for it) may or may not be what he appears. Meanwhile, Ben is put in charge of an elite unit of young soldiers in the making, which allows for the kinds of character-defining nicknames we saw last week in Michael Bay's 13 Hours: "Teacup" (Talitha Bateman), a little girl who reminded me of the one on Sigourney Weaver's back in Aliens (1986); "Dumbo" (Tony Revolori of The Grand Budapest Hotel), a big-eared loudmouth; "Nugget" (the nickname for Sammy); and "Ringer" (Maika Monroe of It Follows), a no-nonsense goth chick with a zero tolerance policy toward any notion of (perceived) sexual harassment (lest we forget this is about female empowerment), and a dead-shot with a rifle, even against a moving target. They are all given the same tutorial: aliens have infiltrated the human race and can only be seen through special visors. Also, something about a pill-shaped chip surgically implanted in the back of their necks that does...something. All of this is explained in monotone military fashion by Vosch's hard-ass medical assistant officer (Maria Bello).
The film's basic concept of distrusting youths infiltrating a military base which may (or may not) be infested with alien-controlled humans was done to far creepier (and better) effect in Abel Ferrara's Body Snatchers (1994), itself an overlooked and under-appreciated iteration of the classic story, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The film itself, from the ordinary early scenes on, often has the feel of watered-down John Carpenter, ranging from the mundane early rural-suburban high school scenes (Halloween, Christine), to aliens disguised as humans that can only be seen for what they are through special lenses (They Live), to a potential army of alien-controlled children (Village of the Damned) and dystopian future landscape navigation (some of the night scenes later on remind of Escape from New York), to simple distrust of military or government authority (really all Carpenter work). Further, a meticulously-lit forest love scene in the back of a car reminded me a bit of last year's Carpenter-inspired It Follows (just for good measure, that film's star Maika Monroe shows up here as "Ringer"). However, when Cassie spies on Evan bathing in a nearby lake, all rock-hard abs and perfectly-shaved beard, all that is missing is soft-corn porn music and cheesy slow-motion.
The film has been directed by one J Blakeson (The Disappearance of Alice Creed) and the uncommonly literate and thoughtful screenplay has been adapted in typical YA fashion from the first in Rick Yancey's book trilogy by a trio of writers with experience in the upper echelons of the oft-tread qualities this touches on - ordinary young women and female empowerment (Susannah Grant of Erin Brockovich), dystopian literature adaptations (Akiva Goldsman of I Am Legend, I Robot and Insurgent - itself a Divergent sequel) and labyrinthine sci-fi-tinged conspiracies (Jeff Pinkner, formerly of TV's Lost, Alias, and Fringe). As a result, this is considerably more intelligent than it needs to be, if not exactly breaking the bank in the process. Which is good because, y'know, there's like at least two more of these books and knowing the marketplace, that means at least 3 more films somewhere down the line..