I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from The 5th Wave, because I hadn’t seen any ads for it—just a few posters in theater lobbies. But now I know why I didn’t see any advertising dollars committed to this film. You don’t often encounter a mix of pandering and incompetence glommed together this thoroughly.
We open as Cassie Sullivan (Chloë Grace Moretz) is on the run: toting an assault rifle, she heads into what appears to be an abandoned gas station. After picking up some supplies, she hears a scared-sounding man in the back call for help. He’s been wounded. She checks him out. He puts down his gun. But he won’t remove his hand from inside his jacket—and when she sees something metallic glint in the sunlight, she opens fire.
It was a crucifix.
What’s turned this normal teen into a coldblooded killing machine? Aliens, duh: A ship appeared over the skies, and the attack came in waves. The first, an EMP that knocked out power all over the globe (and causes a jumbo jet to crash conveniently next to her school without, you know, actually putting the school at risk); then an earthquake and flood to wipe out the coastal towns; followed by a modified bird flu; and then, in the fourth wave, human-looking "others" hunting the stragglers down.
Cassie, her brother Sam (Zackary Arthur), and her dad Oliver (Ron Livingston) survive long enough to make it to a refugee camp (sorry, mom [Maggie Siff]). While there, the army, led by Col. Vosch (Liev Schreiber), shows up to evacuate the kids. Cassie and Sam were supposed to stick together but are separated, and after the bus takes off Cassie sees the army gun down, well, all of the remaining adults.
Was it a misunderstanding? Or something more sinister?
Gee, which do you think?
Meanwhile, Cassie catches up to the beginning of the film and then we see her get shot, only to be rescued by Evan Walker (Alex Roe). They bond and she finds out he’s been lying to her but they fall in love but can he be trusted or is there something more sinister going on?
Gee, which do you think?
Meanwhile, the other kids, from before? They are being trained by the army to fight the "others," equipped with helmets that help them spot the ones who are hiding in human form. But is the army to be trusted or … wait, hold on, I’ve asked that already. Are the, uh, kids going to, you know, do their duty or …
Oh, who cares? This is a staggeringly incompetent piece of filmmaking, which takes two wholly different films—one’s a teen romance with dystopian trappings, like The Hunger Games; the other’s a teen action-adventure film in the paranoid vein, like Ender’s Game—and tries to weld them together with shoddy dialogue and hormones. Either one of those films on their own might have made sense; together, they make no sense at all.
The 5th Wave is almost humorously stupid, as when we cut from one scene in which a teenaged female soldier tells her comrades to stop looking at her butt and that sexist comments won’t be tolerated to another in which Cassie ogles Evan as he bathes in a lake. If the movie weren’t so dumb I’d suspect there’s a sly commentary here about the double standards feminist moviegoers traffic in about objectification and the dread male gaze.
The only interesting thing about this film is that it will serve as a one-stop-shop for cultural historians trying to figure out what Americans were terrified of in the years following the 9/11 attacks. The film usefully compiles the major scares we’ve gone through: mass violence, climate change ("the coasts and the islands vanished" as the waters rose following the earthquake), pandemics, and the threats in-groups feel from outsiders. Judging by the current presidential cycle, we’re well entrenched in the fourth wave.
Who did Schreiber lose a bet to in order to get stuck performing in this movie? (Probably Tobey Maguire: the degenerate gambler also served as a producer on this flick for some reason.) How did anyone let this script make it through to production? Perhaps most importantly: Why would anyone go see this awful film?