Another year, another attempt to turn a dystopia-set young adult novel with a strong female lead into the next blockbuster sensation. Ricky Yancey’s book, The 5th Wave, had the potential to go the distance, but the writers behind the film adaptation absolutely butcher the source material, stripping it of all nuance and instead just running through a Hunger Games wannabe check list.
To start, here’s the necessary background information; one day, an alien ship appeared and attacked the earth in waves. The first wave was an EMP that wiped out all electricity. The second was a tidal wave that took out a good deal of the population living along the coastlines. The third wave was a plague that successfully eliminated the large majority of the remaining population courtesy of the horrifyingly efficient carriers, birds. The fourth and current wave is the “silencers.” (The term only appears in the book, not the film, but I use it here for simplicity’s sake.) Turns out, the ET visitors have the ability to inhabit human bodies, making it impossible to tell who’s truly human and who’s being manipulated by the enemy and trying to wipe out survivors.
That’s about where the 5th Wave begins, with Cassie Sullivan (Chloe Moretz) trying to survive alone in the woods with the threat of silencers all around her. She was separated from her little brother Sammy (Zackary Arthur) when she missed the bus to a military refuge at Wright-Patterson and now she’s determined to reach him, even if it means risking her life in the process.
Sweet story, right? I’d do just about anything for my sibling so it’s only natural to be moved by the idea to a degree, but Cassie’s mission to find Sammy is noticeably hollow, especially compared to how it’s presented in the source material. The movie effectively recaps what happened to the Sullivan family, tossing out quite a few haunting visuals and details in the process, but when it hits the point when Cassie is separated and must carry the movie solo, the script nearly forgets what she’s fighting for.
Moretz delivers a serviceable performance, but there’s rarely any subtext to her work. She shines when she’s reacting to body bags and gunfire, but she doesn’t carry any of that history with her. Whereas the scene during which Katniss takes her sister’s place in The Hunger Games is seared in your brain and ups the intensity of everything the character experiences thereafter, everything in The 5th Wave is what it is and then it’s over, and for that reason, there isn’t much of a build.
The 5th Wave movie also shoehorns in some romance in a manner that severely detracts from the big picture. While trying to make her way to Wright-Patterson, Cassie meets a guy named Evan Walker (Alex Roe) who’s super eager to help her despite the fact that she’s basically on a suicide mission. The problem is there’s no telling whether Evan’s truly human or if he’s an “Other.” Whereas the book really dissects Cassie’s situation and how Evan could be a threat or a major asset, the movie turns their relationship into your quintessential and very absurd young adult dystopia romance.
The more interesting part of the movie is what Nick Robinson’s character is up to. He plays Ben Parish, Cassie’s high school crush. When the waves hit, Ben loses his entire family and winds up at Wright-Patterson as well. Through him, we get a taste of what Sammy experiences. The facility is being used to train children to fight the Others and Sammy and Ben are put on the same squad. It’s an especially intriguing situation that deserves far more screen time.
In the book, Ben had just lost his entire family and is particularly distraught over not being able to save his little sister. For that reason, he strikes up a connection with Sammy and becomes a big brother of sorts. The movie doesn’t even scratch the surface of that relationship, minus a single scene when Sammy is nervous about going on his first mission. The rest of Squad 53 is also painfully underdeveloped. Yes, it’s an adaptation and you’ve got to sacrifice some supporting characters, but then what’s the point in casting someone like Tony Revolori as one of the squad members? And again, this is an example of the movie relying on shock value above all else. It’s absolutely insane that a child as young as Teacup (Talitha Bateman) could be given a gun and sent into battle, but there’s really nothing more to it than that because based on this script, that’s really the only purpose the character serves.
You know what else drives me up the wall? Seeing a character loaded up with eye-liner during an alien invasion. Ringer (Maika Monroe) is living on an army base. Where is she even getting it from? It sounds like a minor issue, but it’s incredibly out of place and distracting. The role also didn’t deserve an actress like Monroe. Ringer’s a fan favorite in the book, but here she’s painfully one-note. She’s a badass and the movie lets you know it over and over. You know what would have given the character a little texture? Having more brief moments like when Ringer puts another solider in his place and we get a shot of Teacup who’s idolizing her. It’s just one brief shot, but it’s much needed character development for both them.
The 5th Wave isn’t a total lost cause, but it’s a major missed opportunity. J Blakeson kicked off his directing career strong with The Disappearance of Alice Creed back in 2009, so we’ve had to wait quite some time for his sophomore effort only for it to be a disappointment. The 5th Wave does have elements that suggest he’s still got promise behind the lens, especially when it comes to keeping the material grounded and natural, but the script is so flawed that he really had no chance at churning out a winner.
This is just a plain old bad adaptation. No, the book isn’t perfect but it did have all the potential in the world to be a superior dystopian young adult film. But instead, it feels like the team of writers behind it just spit out a quick and dirty, surface level version of the source material.