While The 5th Wave resorts to certain age-old clichés with shameless abandon, it’s not terrible either.
For anyone who saw Clouds of Sils Maria, there is a special joy to be had in watching The 5th Wave. The latest iteration of the Twilight/Hunger Games/Divergent paradigm, it stars the lovely Chloë Grace Moretz as an ordinary teenager, forced to battle world annihilation, all before she’s had a chance to kiss the captain of the football team. In Clouds, an art-house film about the divide between art and entertainment, Moretz plays an actress famous for her role in a big budget, alien love story. The director of Clouds (Olivier Assayas) went so far as to include a clip of that imagined film. One year later, it’s fitting that Moretz is now playing the protagonist in a real-life, big budget, alien love story. While The 5th Wave resorts to certain age-old clichés with shameless abandon, it’s not terrible either. Moretz makes for a charming lead, the action sequences are amusing enough and there are a few surprises, including the fantastic Maria Bello.
Cassie Sullivan (Moretz) is an ordinary teenager. We know that because she tells us through a trite voiceover. She’s got a mom, a kid brother, a dad (Ron Livingston) and a crush on Ben (Nick Robinson), the boy next door. In the middle of soccer practice, alien spaceships descend (as they sometimes do) and Cassie’s quaint, Ohio town panics. The alien spaceships release an electromagnetic pulse that wipes out the planet’s electricity. While the manufacturers of candles are presumably leaping for joy, the rest of the world isn’t so pleased. Next, the aliens trigger a cornucopia of natural disasters, and relatively novice director J Blakeson delivers the requisite montage of disaster porn. Oceanfront condos collapse, New York is underwater and the Big Ben breaks like a toothpick. These are the numerical “waves” of the alien attack, and set against a nubile young woman’s coming-of-age, they’re also probably symbols for puberty.
Cassie and her family try to escape the planet’s obliteration, but that’s pretty hard to do when it’s an obliteration. That means there’s a third wave (deadly virus), a massacre of responsible adults and finally, the arrival of Nazi-like armed servicemen. Led by Colonel Vosch (Liev Schreiber), they gather up the kids in buses and their “rescue” starts to seem bogus. Cassie misses the bus and she’s separated from her kid brother. Left with nothing but a backpack and an AK-47, reuniting with her brother becomes her sole mission. She wanders in the woods until she meets the hunkily named Evan Walker (Alex Roe) and he’s the lumberjack/antihero/love interest for which we’ve always dreamed.
Like its predecessors, The 5th Wave is based on a popular young adult novel. While it fits the recognizable blueprint of that safely “feminist” action-heroine genre, it’s also got a decent execution. Adapted by Susannah Grant, whose eclectic screenwriting credits include Pocahontas and Erin Brockovich, the script is tight. It’s the work of a seasoned storyteller who knows how to blend action with love with a Hollywood-sanctioned sense of feminine independence. When Cassie is holed up in the woods with her male heartthrob, Grant nicely upholds her ferocity. She draws a gun on him at least five times before they’ve even held hands.
The most jarring aspect of the film is its prolific use of guns, most notably in the hands of children. Since Colonel Vosch has gathered up the world’s children to create an alien-fighting army, the film has no choice but to show seven-year-old girls shooting glocks. They also practice hand-to-hand combat, sleep in bunk beds and play cards games like extras in some kiddie version of Apocalypse Now. The military compound is made increasingly strange by the presence of a campy sergeant, played with scene-stealing perfection by Maria Bello.
In Clouds of Sils Maria, when the older actress (Juliette Binoche) sees her younger counterpart’s big budget, alien love story, she dismisses the film as mainstream trash. Her assistant (Kristen Stewart) takes a different view: “There’s no less truth than in a more supposedly serious film.” While The 5th Wave is the clearly the product of highly commercial Hollywood system, it’s got some truth, too. Buried beneath the cheesy romance and tiresome earthquakes, there’s a fantasy about young womanhood that many real-life young women may find encouraging.