Thursday, January 21, 2016

Review: "The 5th Wave"

I think we all know the essential ingredients of these science fiction young adult book-to-film adaptions by now:
  • Post-apocalyptic dystopia
  • Female protagonist who's "not special" but is really the Chosen One
  • Teen (and younger) recruits inducted into military-style training and combat
  • Smirking adult overlord pulling the strings
  • Supernatural abilities/challenges
  • An inordinate number of dreamy boys wandering about
"The 5th Wave" isn't the worst of these, nor is it the best, but it suffers from following three "Hunger Games," and two "Divergent" movies. Not to mention five "Twilight" flicks, which eschew the apocalypse but tick everything else off the list. Or two "Maze Runner" movies, which simply swap out the gender of the main character.

It's dragged down by a glum sameness, and the sense that it's a cut-rate knockoff.

Genre pictures tend to be formulaic, but these YA sci-fi movies literally seem to be built on an identical formula from which filmmakers seem afraid to diverge.

In all of them, though, what's constant is that young people hold the key to the world's salvation. And that love will find a way to insert itself into the proceedings, whether it belongs there or not.

Chloƫ Grace Moretz, one of the most interesting film actors under age 20, plays Cassie Sullivan, a self-described ordinary kid in an ordinary town. Then a giant alien spaceship appears over the Earth one day, uncommunicative and mysterious. The intentions of "The Others" -- really original name, idn't it? -- are soon made clear by a series of attacks aimed at wiping out humans while preserving the planet.

First an electromagnetic pulse takes out all our tech. Then rising waters flood the cities near the coast or major lakes. Then a super version of avian flu. And so on, until not that many people are left, struggling to survive -- and competing to do it. A shocking opening scene shows Cassie blowing away a wounded guy.

"How do you rid the world of humans? First your rid the humans of their humanity," she narrates.

The fifth and final wave is the most devious: the Others, which are described as bug-like parasites, infiltrate human hosts and send them out to kill remaining survivors.

Luckily, the Army has finally gotten its act together and come to the rescue. They arrive at the refugee camp where Cassie and her family are living, with promises of shelter, protection and training for the final fight to come. It seems kids make the best recruits because it's easier to detect whether they've been infected than adults.

Maria Bellow plays a hardcase sergeant with a deathly pallor who shows the youngsters the ugly face of the enemy. The commander is the stern but charismatic Colonel Vosch (Liev Schreiber). Cassie herself gets left behind during the roundup, but her young brother Sammy (Zackary Arthur) is taken. She's determined to be reunited with him but there are... setbacks.

Nick Robinson plays Ben Parish, who was Cassie's big crush back in high school before the Others came. Now he's selected as squadron leader, though he butts heads with headstrong emo ragegirl Ringer (Maika Monroe).

Meanwhile, Cassie is wounded and nursed back to health by Evan Walker (Alex Roe), whose dimples blow away even Ben's. He's living in the woods by himself, but has some secrets for Cassie to discover.

There's a big twist about two-thirds of the way through the film, which I guessed pretty early in the going, and you probably will, too. Also a somewhat smaller twist... which is also telegraphed in a major way.

Director J Blakeson -- that's sic; he's too cool for punctuation, apparently -- and a trio of screenwriters keep things moving at a brisk pace, and manage to present reasonably distinct characters. Moretz is the strong point, able to reflects aspects of vulnerability and determination without seeming like a two-dimensional movie construct.

The kissy stuff is just death, though, interrupting the plot just as it's getting into third gear.

I haven't read the novel by Rick Yancey upon which it was based, but it's no surprise that it is a trilogy like its YA sci-fi brethren. So that means if you're looking for a satisfying conclusion to this story, we're just getting rolling here.

Assuming, that is, "The 5th Wave" does well enough to recoup its $38 million budget -- about half that of the first "Hunger Games" and "Divergent" movies -- and post a reasonable profit. Which isn't a sure thing: just in the past three years cinematic adaptations of "Mortal Instruments," "The Host" and "The Giver" all had modest-to-weak debuts that doomed the chance of sequels.

Based on this movie, I'd put the chances of a 6th wave at 50/50 at best.

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