The 5th Wave: Endlessly Derivative and Woefully Underwritten


The 5th Wave

Editor’s Note: The 5th Wave opens in wide theatrical release today, January 22, 2016.

We’ve been there before. We’ve all been there before. The giant, threatening spaceships hovering silently over major cities. The natural and unnatural disasters. The body-snatching, Earth-obsessed aliens. The teen heroine – insecure at first, indomitable by the end – whose inner and outer journey audiences implicitly and explicitly embrace. The adult, especially adults in authority, who prove themselves time and again unworthy of that authority. And, of course, the death defying, firefights, explosions, and the best visual effects a modest, mid-range budget can by.

The 5th Wave may not be the first must-miss film of the year (that dubious honor falls on The Forest), but it certainly deserves to be in the same company.

Everything you just read sums up The 5th Wave, the latest in a seemingly endless line of YA novels making the canyon-sized leap from the printed/electronic page to the big digital screen. Clumsily adapted by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind), and Jeff Pinkner from the first novel in Rick Yancey’s trilogy (the third and final book will be released later this year), The 5th Wave may not be the first must-miss film of the year (that dubious honor falls on The Forest), but it certainly deserves to be in the same company.

The 5th WaveDirected with the anonymous competency of first- or second-time directors making a studio film by J Blakeson (The Disappearance of Alice Creed), The 5th Wave opens promisingly enough in media res as the central protagonist, Cassie Sullivan (Chloë Grace Moretz), living every teen’s post-apocalyptic, post-alien-invasion nightmare, stumbles upon a seemingly abandoned convenience store only to discover a wounded young man. With paranoid suspicions high, a tense standoff ends with the young man dead and Cassie alive but emotionally wounded, a hint that what we’re about to see will deal not in moral clarities, but in moral ambiguities, The Walking Dead-style (The 5th Wave was partially shot in and around Atlanta like The Walking Dead and it shows). Before long, however, The 5th Wave segues into exposition-by-flashback-and-voiceover-narration mode, an ill-conceived decision made all the worse by awkward, unwieldy execution.

It turns out Cassie was a typical Midwestern teen: She had it all, loving parents, Oliver (Ron Livingston) and Lisa (Maggie Siff), an adorable, adoring young brother, Sam (Zackary Arthur), and an unrequited crush on the sensitive, high-school quarterback, Ben Parish (Nick Robinson). But what luck and white privilege has given Cassie, an alien invasion tears asunder. Once massive alien spaceships appear over major cities, the apocalypse is all but a certainty. First the aliens send out an electromagnetic pulse that knocks out electricity worldwide. Then, when a sense of normality almost restores itself, they send (un) natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes, tsunamis) to wreak havoc on coastal cities. Cassie’s hometown doesn’t emerge unscathed (she narrowly escapes a flood by climbing into a tree with her brother). The worst is yet to come, however, as the aliens unleash a genetically engineered virus to kill off most of humanity. The few survivors have to contend with the so-called fourth wave: alien infiltration (body-snatching), followed by the last, fifth wave: Eliminating the remaining survivors completely.

Nothing Blakeson and the screenwriting team show us in The 5th Wave suggests it deserves a sequel, let alone two.

By plot-driven necessity, Cassie’s journey separates her from her family, permanently from her parents, temporarily from her brother when an armed convoy shows up at a refugee camp promising a better life for everyone. Of course, that’s not the case at all. Led by Colonel Vosch (Liev Schreiber), the army wants the surviving children for a potentially nefarious purpose: To lead a counter-attack against the alien invasion. A little topicality (child soldiers), however, goes a long way. The 5th Wave does nothing with the concept except throw Ben and Sam together (an incredibly unlikely coincidence, almost as unlikely as Cassie and Ben encountering each other in the third act) while Cassie, struggling alone on foot toward the army base, suffers a lift-threatening injury only to be saved by Evan Walker (Alex Roe), a handsome, slightly bearded survivalist who lovingly nurses Cassie back to health. Almost inevitably, a romantic triangle will form between Cassie, Evan, and Ben, but like so much else with a film intended to be the first entry in a trilogy, nothing as important as a romantic triangle or permanently saving the world from invasion will be resolved now.

That’s probably a tad optimistic. Despite a modest budget, thus making a return on investment (i.e., profit) more likely than not, a remarkably devoted fanbase for the first two entries in Yancey’s trilogy, and a soft February release date with little competition, nothing Blakeson and the screenwriting team show us in The Fifth Wave suggests it deserves a sequel, let alone two. Endlessly derivative, ploddingly paced, and woefully underwritten, The 5th Wave bears all the signs of a film rushed into production to cash in on the rightfully, not to mention thankfully, waning YA fad. Hopefully the performers in front of the camera will find a better of use of their talents in better-written, better-produced films.


Awkward and derivative, The 5th Wave seems like little more than a last-ditch cash-grab before the Young Adult end-of-the-world genre finally fizzles out.

  • 5.0

About Author

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending New York University as an undergrad (politics and economics double major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he relocated from the East Coast to San Francisco, California, where he's been ever since. Since Mel began writing about film nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.