Sunday, January 24, 2016

No YA Left Behind: Moretz gives derivative "5th Wave" a lift

The 5th Wave (2016)
112 min., rated PG-13.

Another year, another adaptation of a YA sci-fi novel that’s only the first of a trilogy. It’s a problem when so many films of this ilk come out so close together that every new adaptation has a homogenized, been-there-done-that air about it. Case in point: ”The 5th Wave," based on Rick Yancey's 2013 novel, starts with enough promise before it goes by way of every other (post)-apocalyptic story about that one teenage girl who can save mankind but must also choose wisely between two hunky teenage boys. Life is tough enough when the world is coming to an end, isn't it? Director J Blakeson (2010’s impressive kidnap-thriller “The Disappearance of Alice Creed”) and writers Susannah Grant, Akiva Goldsman, and Jeff Pinkner—three screenwriters is rarely ever a good sign—don’t offer too many novel ideas to this generally derivative blueprint, but it is sufficiently entertaining in a mixed-bag sort of way and the dependable Chloë Grace Moretz does her best to fireman's-carry the proceedings.

Cassiopeia Sullivan (Chloë Grace Moretz)—don’t worry, she goes by “Cassie”—was an ordinary 16-year-old girl in Ohio, attending soccer practice, going to keggers with her best friend and crushing on football player Ben Parish (Nick Robinson). That all changed when it became evident that an object was hovering over Earth. Aliens known as “The Others” don’t invade all in one fell swoop but in five waves. First, this alien species kills the planet’s engines and electricity, as well as its supply of running water. During the second wave, they take out every coastal city with literal waves from tsunamis and floods. Next comes the third wave, the spreading of the avian flu. By the fourth wave, those “Others” inhabit humans as their hosts. When Cassie is sent to a refugee camp with her father (Ron Livingston) and little brother Sam (Zackary Arthur), the military soon comes in and splits the parents up from their kids who get placed on a bus. Cassie gets separated from Sam, but she has a gun and she’s not afraid to use it. Along her journey, though, she becomes rescued by a helpful but mysterious stranger named Evan Walker (Alex Roe) and patches her up in his farmhouse. Meanwhile, Sam, now codenamed “Nugget," and Cassie’s crush Ben, now “Zombie,” have both been drafted in the government’s army of child soldiers at the Wright-Patterson Army Base. Will Cassie and Sam reunite? Can the military be trusted? Will the aliens win?

"The 5th Wave" opens with an arresting gut-punch, even without too much context via our heroine's eventual exposition-dumping voice-over. In medias res, Cassie must stock up her survival pack from what’s left in an abandoned convenience store, only to make a decision: does she kill a fellow survivor who could be a guarded human or a dangerous host? From there, the film goes back to when “the Others” invaded and paints a grimly fatalistic status quo. As Cassie is on her way to find her brother, her survival story gets less compelling when she meets lumberjack Evan Walker. Bifurcated into two narratives—Cassie and Evan versus Ben and the military kids—the film eventually forgoes the “I-need-to-find-my-brother” strand for a shallow romance and other silly developments. Whether or not this is a faithful adaptation to the source material, why does every YA movie now have to force a requisite love triangle? Pieces of dialogue between Cassie and Evan are overly clunky and will induce unintentional titters this side of “Twilight” and “The Host,” as will a gratuitous bit where Cassie spies on her paramour bathing in a river and revealing his cut torso.

As is to be expected from an 18-year-old actress of her caliber, Chloë Grace Moretz brings weight and pathos to Cassie. On the page, this character is a prototypically strong heroine, but Moretz is such an instinctive actress that she makes Cassie’s arc into an instinctive fighter more believable. Nick Robinson is up to the physical challenges, but he’s slightly underserved by the script, giving him few character traits as Ben Parish. As the resourceful third-wheel-with-a-backstory, Alex Roe is handsome to look at, but what seems to be between Cassie and Evan is derived by obligation rather than a natural connection or chemistry. Despite a jet-black hair dye job and goth eye make-up, Maika Monroe (who was excellent in “The Guest” and “It Follows”) can’t always sell the badass toughness of Ringer, but she sure is cool to watch. In the untrustworthy adults-in-control roles, following Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman in “The Hunger Games,” Kate Winslet in “Divergent” and Patrick Clarkson in “The Maze Runner,” Liev Schrieber and an unrecognizable Maria Bello almost class up the joint as Colonel Vosch and Sergeant Reznik, respectively, but can only do so much.

A grab-bag of other, better movies—“Starship Troopers,” “Divergent,” “Ender’s Game,” just to name a few—“The 5th Wave” falls into the trap of so many dystopian YA book-to-movie adaptations and pieces of the Marvel Cinematic Universe puzzle. Instead of it worrying about its own game plan, the film proper isn’t so much self-contained as it is a place-holder, like everything else these days, for what will follow. The setup is unsettling enough in how an outside force takes everything humans take for granted, but where the story goes is much less satisfying. It’s saying something when a quirkily random detail like spotting a one-sheet of Tim Burton’s “Big Fish” in a character’s bedroom becomes more interesting than a pivotal third-act revelation. Finding a temporary stopping point to keep the doors open for its inevitable sequel (“The Infinite Sea”), “The 5th Wave” is just an average start. When the fifth wave finally gets underway, it’s questionable whether or not anyone will still care.

Grade: C +

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