Monday, January 25, 2016

Review: The 5th Wave (2016)

The 5th Wave (2016)

Rated PG-13 for violence and destruction, some sci-fi thematic elements, language and brief teen partying

Score: 2 out of 5

It's January. The time for cheap horror flicks, low-budget action movies, creaky comedies, and other movies that weren't deemed good enough to release in the spring or the fall, let alone the summer. I've dodged most of the onslaught thus far (my nose can smell crap from a mile away, part of the reason why I've been slow putting out reviews), but this week, I caved and went to see The 5th Wave, an alien invasion flick based on the young-adult novel by Rick Yancey. Teen movies are a genre that gets a lot of play in the otherwise slow winter months, as they're aimed at the only moviegoers who aren't wild about the sporting events that dominate January and February, and aren't interested in the grown-up Oscar-bait films that are expanding into wide release as part of their award campaigns. They tend to be hit-or-miss; in the last five years we've had the superb Chronicle and the endearing Warm Bodies, but also forgettable duds like Project Almanac and Texas Chainsaw 3D.

I count The 5th Wave as being in the latter category. Despite starting strong with a solid first act and some fine performances, it quickly loses its way as it goes on, with a story taken from all manner of alien invasion and survival films. Plot twists are obvious in advance, the love triangle (because this is adapted from a YA novel) is hackneyed "love conquers all" pap, and for half the film, it is essentially running two separate stories whose connections are threadbare at best. I'd easily recommend any of the films this one is half-heartedly ripping off well before this one.

I can't help but feel sorry for Chloë Grace Moretz, as this is the second teen film she's been in recently that was not only subpar, but failed for one of the exact same reasons. Just like If I Stay, The 5th Wave borrows its source material's structure on top of its plot, alternating between the story of Cassie Sullivan (Moretz) surviving in the woods while attempting to reach her brother Sam, and Sam surviving at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base where the military, led by Liev Schreiber's Colonel Vosch, is planning to strike back against the aliens that have invaded Earth -- but is implied to have sinister motivations of his own. (I don't think it's a spoiler to suggest that he's evil.) The transitions between the two were jarring; just as I was getting invested in one story, I was suddenly pulled into the other, which felt like it came from a completely different film.

And I can tell you exactly what films were being mashed up. Cassie's survival story felt like a poor man's take on How I Live Now or the opening District 12 scenes from the first Hunger Games movie, and while Moretz outshines pretty much everybody around her in terms of talent, she just barely props up a story that feels like it's held together by Scotch tape and silly putty -- especially when she crosses paths with Evan Walker (Alex Roe), a hunky young man living in the woods who's perhaps the dullest and most forced YA romantic interest I've ever seen. Seriously, he's like the male version of Megan Fox in the Transformers movies, little more than eye candy for the female viewers (and I can assure you, the ladies did swoon in my theater), only he takes up so much of the story that he's more like this film's Edward Cullen (which isn't helped by some groan-worthy twists involving his character). Sam's story was slightly better, as he crosses paths with Ben Parish (Nick Robinson), a classmate of Cassie's that she had a crush on. This is really Ben's story more than Sam's, and it's where the film tries to go for a more subversive tone (a dark take on Independence Day, if you will) as Ben and his fellow teenage refugees, a motley crew who've been drafted into the desperate fight against the aliens, uncover a far-reaching government conspiracy. It cribs liberally from the military satire of Starship Troopers and the paranoia of The X-Files, and the twists are obvious the moment you suspect something is up. However, Nick Robinson is an acceptable leading man (even if he's not quite as good as Moretz), and the supporting cast, particularly Liev Schreiber as the shifty commander and an unrecognizable Maika Monroe (who recently shined in It Follows) as a goth chick implied to have come from a troubled background, also impressed me.

If you ask me, this film should've dropped Cassie's survival story altogether and sent her to the military base straight away, taking the best character in this film and making her a part of the more compelling of this film's two stories rather than saddling her with her chronically bland and toothless journey through the wilderness. Maybe that way, this film could've maintained the decent standard of quality it had in the first act, during which time I was wondering if it really deserved its 18% Tomatometer. We get some good, over-the-top special effects in scenes where Miami, London, and Bangkok are wiped out by tsunamis, and the early scene of Cassie at a party did a great job conveying that this was the last ordinary day of her life. Alas, this film can't escape the cesspool of YA cliches that slowly drag it into the mud. We have to have our bland love triangle, our implications that Cassie is "special", our pointless narration from Cassie that serves to tell us what she's feeling rather than show us, our inability to chart a unique course rather than ripping off countless superior science fiction stories. Only towards the end do Cassie, Sam, and Ben's stories finally start to come together with some surprisingly decent action scenes, and even then, it culminates in a sequel-baiting anticlimax.

The Bottom Line:

If you've seen any of the films or TV shows that this movie is shamelessly cribbing from, you have little reason to watch this with its jumbled and predictable story. Beat the snowstorm and watch one of those other films on Netflix.

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