Sci-fi film fails to convey the emotional gravity of its apocalyptic premise
One of the things I love about science fiction is its ability to comment on real issues and ideas in our lives by telling stories that are themselves fantastic and beyond our experience. We may not have an empirical frame of reference to determine whether films like Prometheus are realistic, but the emotional and intellectual responses they inspire certainly are.
Yet without this idea in mind, I think people often take for granted what they see in these stories, as if the ideas and lessons proposed do not apply to them. When HAL9000 wreaks havoc in 2001: A Space Odyssey, I think filmgoers tend to see a movie villain rather than a commentary on artificial intelligence. When produced and consumed en masse, sci-fi movies, in their attempt to give us perspective, can also make us feel detached from the imminence of certain truths. So when it comes to The 5th Wave, based on the young adult novel by Rick Yancey, it seems the filmmakers fall into this audience. While they have attempted to make a sci-fi action film, they show little sense of what intergalactic warfare might actually feel like and what it would mean for us more broadly. What they have instead made is an uneven and wholly unconvincing sci-fi feature.
It feels very familiar. In Ohio, Cassie (played by Chloe Grace Moretz) is an average teenager in high school. But suddenly large ships are floating above Earth, sending out different “waves” to eradicate humanity. The first four are, in order: loss of power, natural disaster, disease and infiltration. The fifth wave is human annihilation. The humble Cassie, along with a few other adolescents, rise to the occasion to save the world.
Some of the most disappointing movie experiences are those which promise solid ideas at the drawing board, but flop when executed. The 5th Wave represents missed opportunity after missed opportunity, and this is largely the result of poor pacing. The first three waves include some of the most consequential events of the exposition, which in a better film would be given greater focus, and would take a while longer to get through. Yet these waves are packed into the first half-hour of the film (the whole thing runs just under two hours), making the sense of apocalyptic danger almost wholly undeveloped.
What follows is a story about alien invaders which does not seem to take humanity’s demise very seriously. It had me constantly thinking: this probably isn’t what space invasion will be like. The way The 5th Wave flippantly writes off the immensity of this threat and fails to develop its context has a hint of hubris to it, like we would actually know what to do in this situation. Its depiction of cosmic warfare is farcically uncompelling; Cassie very conveniently knows how to operate a sniper rifle. Maybe the characters have seen too many rehashed sci-fi films; they’re a dime a dozen nowadays. Maybe alien invasion won’t shock us too much.
If the weak opening sequence wasn’t enough, the middle portion of The 5th Wave is barely about the alien threat itself. In fact, we never really see the aliens, only their ships. We are instead subject to the fickle teenage romance which blossoms between Cassie and her mysterious tutor (because making out with a stranger you just met clearly takes priority when you’re alone in the woods surrounded by deadly creatures). The premise of aliens which parasitically infect their hosts is trite and overplayed enough. That the promise of sci-fi action is replaced with sappy, hormonal melodrama is a bait-and-switch that left me feeling irritated and ripped off.
I have not read Yancey’s book, but I also didn’t enter the theatre with high expectations. The parasitic alien gimmick got me before I came in, and the empty writing and laughable effects rested my case afterward. The 5th Wave is a film that thinks it is something new. It is a shadow of a shadow of greater sci-fi films before it, boiling their finer qualities down into an uneven hodgepodge of cash-grabbing monotony. It is Alien without the suspense, Invasion of the Body Snatchers without the paranoia, Independence Day without the grandiosity. But The 5th Wave is so unaware of its own unoriginality, so wrapped up in its own epiphany, you would think the writers had never seen a sci-fi movie in their lives. Or maybe they’ve seen too many.
If you have never seen a sci-fi movie in your life, I would still stay away from The 5th Wave; look instead to its better-refined forbears. At least then you’ll see some aliens and not also not feel like chuckling about the end of the world.