The Fifth Wave is based on the novel of the same name, the first in a series by author Rick Yancey. The novel is a mostly satisfying bit of young adult sci-fi, featuring a first-person narration by a smart, scrappy female protagonist who moves independently through a world torn asunder by an alien force that uses the Earth’s own resources against us. It’s a clever premise, aliens that we never see, allowing for a great deal of in-depth examination of the protagonist and the world around her, and creating an aura of mystery around the malevolent forces that are steadily, implacably destroying humankind. It’s a solid, good-not-great novel with likable characters and a relatively new take on the genre, and fits nicely on the shelves with the likes of Alexandra Bracken, Marissa Meyer, and Suzanne Collins.
The film adaptation, however, takes whatever originality and innovation the novel may have had and tosses it through the generic Hollywood meatgrinder. It’s a listless, uneven and ultimately forgettable affair, made more frustrating by an immensely promising first act. The first third of the movie, featuring Chloe Grace-Moretz capably navigating this lonely, treacherous world by herself while also solemnly flashing back to better times as well as the days when the world started to end, is brisk, tense, and tightly scripted, and she handles her role with confident, quiet aplomb. The story of her slowly splintering family, of the world gradually coming to grips with the inevitability of its own demise, is a fairly compelling one and it’s told quite well, and she — on her own, learning as she goes with a discarded M-16, gives the impression that she can handle herself.
But then, it all goes to crap, and I don’t just mean the world. The Fifth Wave eventually splits its time between Moretz’s Cassie as she encounters the mysterious hunk Evan (Alex Roe) in the middle of nowhere, and her high school crush Ben (Nick Robinson) as he is whisked away to a military base to begin training for the fight. The Ben storyline is rushed and completely uninteresting, not helped by the fact that Robinson is about as exciting to watch onscreen as a damp washcloth. Unlike the novel, which handles Cassie’s new encounters with a steady hand and intelligent narration, Cassie is instantly robbed of any sense of agency and quickly becomes wholly reliant on the men around her. Look at the film’s promotional materials, and all you’ll find is Cassie being protected by a young man with a gun, and that’s essentially how the film goes after its first third — Cassie being saved by various lackluster dudes as she seeks out her lost little brother. The story becomes muddled and boring, mired in the poor performances of its male leads and tired storytelling that quickly devolves into standard Hollywood YA crap, sucking the life out of every page of the novel and instead giving us a stale slice of lazy science fiction.
It’s a decidedly un-thrilling thriller, too, which makes it all the worse. The action scenes are brief and unexciting, and any suspense or sense of menace stemming from its eventually revealed antagonists and lumbering plot twists are wasted by telegraphing its punches way too early. The film is directed without much in the way of originality, which comes as little surprise considering its director, J Blakeson, is responsible for the tepidly disappointing The Descent 2. It’s unfortunate, because Blakeson can do better, as evidenced in the surprisingly solid The Disappearance of Alice Creed — had he injected more of the urgency of the latter film into it, rather than the generic, derivative laziness of the former, we may have been onto something.
It’s a shame, too, because it’s a decent enough tale, and Moretz does fine work with what she’s given and if they had burned the last two thirds of the script and just left her on her own, we’d have had a much more compelling story. But as it stands, The Fifth Wave will drop into the seemingly bottomless bucket of mediocre YA adaptations, swimming around lukewarm waters with films like The Maze Runner, City of Bones, Divergent, and whatever else is out there desperately hoping to be the next Hunger Games. It’ll probably get a sequel that’ll be even less exciting than the original, and then the series will just drift away from us, until eventually we forget that it ever happened, let alone that it was a story left unfinished.