Monday, February 8, 2016

It Came From The Cineplex: The 5th Wave

The 5th Wave was written by Susannah Grant, Akiva Goldsman and Jeff Pinkner. It was directed by J Blakeson (no period after the J, please).

Grant has had a remarkably eclectic career as a screenwriter, penning movies such as Disney's Pocahontas, Ever After, 28 Days (the Sandra Bullock movie, not 28 Days Later), Erin Brockivich, Charlotte's Web and The Soloist. Now that's a checkered resume!

Pinkner has mostly worked in TV, writing episodes of Ally McBeal, Profiler, Alias, LOST and Fringe. He also co-wrote The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (the one with Electro).

Akiva Goldsman is a very prolific and wildly uneven screenwriter, who previously wrote Batman & Robin, Lost In Space, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, The Da Vinci Code, I Am Legend, Angels & Demons, Winter's Tale and The Divergent Series: Insurgent. That's right— the man who wrote the Oscar winning A Beautiful Mind also wrote Batman & Robin, one of the worst superhero movie ever made. I told you he was uneven!

Blakeson previously directed just one theatrical movie, The Disappearance Of Alice Creed

The 5th Wave is based on the book of the same name by Rick Yancey. Naturally it's the first part of a trilogy, the other two novels being The Infinite Sea and The Last Star.

Ah, another month, another studio trying its best to start up a lucrative new Young Adult film franchise. The 5th Wave has all the necessary elements— a dystopian setting, teens in life and death battles against the system, bizarre nicknames and of course the requisite love triangle.

Unfortunately the film tries to pack way too much into its run time, resulting in a muddled and unfocused script. Ideas and situations are tossed at the screen in rapid fire succession, but none of them are ever given enough time to stick. As soon as an idea or situation is brought up, it's quickly ushered away to make room for the next one.

It's also an extremely derivative movie. You can't swing a dead cat in this film without hitting a chunk from another, better movie. Take equal parts from The War Of The Worlds, Ender's Game, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Independence Day, The Walking Dead and espcially The Hunger Games, mix thoroughly and you'll have a pretty good idea what The 5th Wave is like.

The 5th Wave a very low budget film, costing just $38 million. Virtually every effects scene is in the trailer, so if you're expecting a big budget disaster porn epic like 2012 or San Adreas, you'll be disappointed. On the other hand, the small budget practically guarantees the film will make a profit. Unless it completely tanks at the box office, expect to see The 6th and 7th Waves (or whatever they end up calling the sequels) in the next few years.

SPOILERS, I GUESS!

The Plot:
Cassie Sullivan (played by Chloe Grace Moretz) is a typical high school teen who lives with her parents and younger brother Sam. She spends her days partying, texting and mooning over her crush, Ben Parish.

All that changes when a fleet of alien spaceships arrives and hovers over the major cities of Earth. At first the aliens, creatively dubbed "The Others" (no doubt by LOST fans) simply hang overhead without communicating. Then the Waves begin.

The First Wave is an EM pulse that knocks out all electrical and telecommunication devices on Earth. Cars die and planes fall from the sky. The Second Wave is a series of powerful earthquakes and tsunamis that wipe out entire populations. The Third Wave is an Other-modified version of avian flu, which kills millions, including Cassie's mom Lisa. 

Cassie, Sam and her father Oliver leave their home and head for a survivor camp. The camp is soon visited by a convoy of military vehicles, led by Colonel Vosch. He tells the survivors they're to be relocated to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. He orders the children onto buses, while keeping the adults behind for briefing. Oliver puts Cassie and Sam on a bus and assures them he'll see them soon. Sam forgets his teddy bear, so Cassie runs back to get it. When she returns, the buses are gone.

Meanwhile Vosch tells the adults that The Fourth Wave has begun. The Others are using humans as host bodies and are now moving freely among the population, making it impossible to tell friend from foe. The crowd begins panicking, and the soldiers open fire. All the adults, including Oliver, are killed. Cassie finds his body and moves on, determined to find Sam.

The kids are bused to Camp Haven, a military training facility. Sam is there, along with Ben, Cassie's crush. Sgt. Reznik injects Ben, now nicknamed "Zombie" with a tracker in the back of his neck. She shows him a boy who's been taken over by an Other. She gives him a special viewer which allows him to see an x-ray image of the parasite inside the boy's skull. She hands him a remote, telling him to press it and kill The Other. He hesitates a few seconds, then presses the button.

Cassie is foraging along a highway when she's shot in the leg by a sniper. She wakes up inside a house, her leg expertly bandaged. Her savior is Evan Walker, a twenty five year old "teen" who's also surviving on his own. She wants to leave and find Sam, but Evan says it's too dangerous. She sneaks out that night and runs into the woods, blundering into one of Evan's traps. He finds her and protects her from an Other who's patrolling the woods for humans. He agrees to help Cassie get to the base to find Ben. 

Meanwhile Ben, er, I mean Zombie, Sam and the other children are being trained to be soldiers. Zombie is made leader of his squad. A tough, no-nonsense Goth girl called Ringer (Jesus, this nicknames) shows up, determined to overthrow Zombie and become squad leader herself. Conflict! How can we fight The Others if we're fighting ourselves?

Vosch tells Zombie they have reason to believe The Fifth Wave— in which the human-looking Others begin hand to hand combat against any remaining survivors— has begun. He outfits Zombie's squad with special helmets that will allow them to easily detect Others.

Zombie's squad goes on their first mission, to clear out a nest of Others in a destroyed city. They spot and kill many Others, and hole up in an abandoned building to regroup. For some reason Ringer removes her tracker, and immediately appears as an Other to the rest of the squad. Zombie realizes something's up, and removes his tracker and gets the same result. He makes the incredibly intuitive leap that Vosch and the rest of the military have been taken over by The Others. The Fifth Wave is actually human children, who can be easily manipulated and fooled into thinking the remaining humans are really Others and wiping them out.

Cassie and Evan camp in an abandoned car overnight, and eventually give into their carnal desires. The next morning they're attacked by Others, and Evan kills them with superhuman strength. Cassie realizes that Evan is an Other as well, something the audience figured out the first time he appeared. 

Evan tells her that he's a sleeper agent, sent to Earth years in advance of the invasion. When the Other ships finally arrived, it was like a switch was flipped in his head and he lost his humanity. However, his love for her (oy) is overriding his Otherness, making him "human" again. Horrified, she runs from him and is intercepted by the military.

She's processed like Zombie and the others. During heindoctrination she realizes Reznik, who's wearing an alarming amount of lipstick, is an Other. They fight and Cassie knocks her out in the most hilarious way possible. Cassie just happens to run into Zombie, and is finally reunited with Sam. The base is rocked with explosions, and Vosch gives the order to evacuate. He has the armies of child soldiers flown out in large C4 transport planes.

Cassie, Zombie and Sam are captured by Other soldiers and are about to be executed, when, wouldn't ya know it, Evan appears and kills the soldiers. Evan says he's rigged the base to explode (?) and tells Cassie and Zombie's squad to run. 

Outside, Cassie, Zombie and Sam are picked up in a van by Ringer and the rest of the squad. They escape just as the base explodes in a fireball. Cassie realizes Evan sacrificed himself for her, and the rest of humanity.

Cassie and the squad then set up camp, and we get a hopeful, groan-worthy, "This Isn't Over" ending.

Thoughts:
• I really wish the film had spent more time on the first three Waves that hit Earth. In fact they could have made compelling and action-packed films about each one.

Instead the film breezes through very abbreviated Cliff Notes versions of each disaster, as if the director can't wait to dispense with them so he can get to the kid soldier stuff and the love triangle.

 What a coincidence that one of The Other's ships not only appears in Cassie's hometown of Dayton, Ohio, but decided to hover right over her street!

• The First Wave wipes out all electricity, which means no newspapers, radio or internet. News and information would likely be scarce, if not nonexistent. Yet during Cassie's opening narration, she somehow knows how many people have been wiped out worldwide. Maybe she's estimating?

 During the Second Wave we see London and Bangkok wiped out by tsunamis.

Tsunamis can generally travel about ten miles inland (depending on the size of the wave and local topography). London is around fifty miles from the sea, and Bangkok about twenty. I'll leave it to the reader to decide if those cities could really be overrun by waves a hundred feet tall.

 Let's play Spot The Influences! As I said earlier, this is one of the more derivative films I've seen in many a day. It's like the author was ticking off scenarios from a checklist of other movies. Let's run down its various inspirations (potential spoilers ahead):

The War Of The Worlds: Alien invaders arrive and being systematically eradicating humanity.

Independence Day: Alien ships appear and hover over major cities before wiping them out.

Ender's Game: The military trains kids as soldiers to battle an alien horde. The twist is that the kids think they're participating in a simulation, when they're actually killing the aliens for real.

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers: Alien pods invade from outer space and replace humans with exact duplicates.

The Host: Same thing— squirmy aliens take over human bodies and drive them around.

2012, The Day After Tomorrow, San Andreas: Huge natural disasters destroy the world's most famous landmarks

Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Host, and many more: The female protagonist is involved in a lukewarm love triangle, as she has to choose between two hunky but bland male love interests.

The Walking Dead: The remnants of humanity try to survive a zombie apocalypse as they pick their way through ruined cites and clogged highways.

The Hunger Games, Divergent, Maze Runner, and many more: Teens in a life and death struggle against a dystopian nightmare world.

• There's a huge, potentially fatal plot hole in this film. At the refugee camp, Colonel Vosch gathers all the adults into a cabin and tells them that The Others are using humans as host bodies. Cassie is nowhere near the cabin during this briefing, yet later on she somehow knows all about the Other-controlled humans. 

She does stand just outside the cabin door as the crowd inside begins to panic and is mowed down. I suppose it might be possible that she's got really good ears and overheard Vosch's announcement, or heard murmurs of "What? Others taking over humans?" but it's iffy.

• In addition to having good eyes, Cassie apparently also has nocturnal vision. On her quest to find Sam, she stops every night and writes in her journal, sans flashlight.

• When Sgt. Reznik shows Ben an x-ray image of an Other, it looks like an enormous, softball-sized deer tick clinging to its human host's brain.

Honestly it doesn't look like there'd be nearly enough room inside a human skull for something that big. Maybe it eats part of its host's brain to make room? And how the hell does it get in there in the first place?

• The film never quite makes it clear if the tick-like parasite is The Others' true form, or if that's just the illusion they use to dupe the child soldiers. I have a feeling they're saving the answer for a potential sequel.

Sony Product Placement Alert! During the kid soldier training montage (yep, they learn to be soldiers through the power of a montage!), Sam looks under a bed and sees a Spider-Man action figure. He grabs it and holds it triumphantly over his head, as the rest of the squad screams that it's booby-trapped.

A bit later Cassie wakes up in Evan's house and goes snooping. One of the rooms has a movie poster for Tim Burton's Big Fish very prominently displayed on the wall. Whaaa...?

OK, I can understand throwing a Spider-Man reference in there, since Sony still owns the movie rights to the wall-crawler. But Big Fish? Sure, it's a Sony movie, but it was released in 2003! Why the hell would they want to remind the audience of that film?

 If you didn't foresee that both Evan and the military officers were all Others, then you've never seen a movie before. You could spot that particular plot twist coming down the street from several miles away.

 The Other's justification for using children as soldiers is frankly pretty dodgy. Supposedly they use kids because they can be more easily bamboozled into thinking humans are really Others, and wipe out the rest of our race. But the Others already had adult agents moving stealthily among humanity, doing the exact same thing. So why'd they need the kids?

Obviously the real reason for the child army is because this is a Young Adult series, and kids wanna see kids killing adults and/or one another. Plain and simple. 

The first three Waves— the EM pulse, the earthquakes and the plague— are all pretty epic. After that the Waves kind of peter out. Others taking over humans, and Others training kids to kill their own kind? Meh. 

• Apparently the Others must up the adrenaline level of their host bodies or something, because when Evan's attacked, he easily tosses several grown men fifty feet into the air.

• In the book (which I have not read, but read about) Cassie and Evan are sixteen and eighteen, respectively. In the movie actor Alex Roe plays Evan, and he's currently twenty five. Chloe Grace Moretz is currently eighteen. That makes their inevitable relationship a little too statutory rapey.

I guess it's possible that we're supposed to believe Movie Evan is eighteen, since it's a time-honored Hollywood tradition for thirty year olds to play teens.

• Ringer arrives halfway through the film to shake up Ben's squad. You can tell she's a rebel who plays by her own rules by the thick raccoon makeup she wears around her eyes. Does she really take the time every morning to outline her eyes like a football player? And does any branch of the military really allow female soldiers to wear makeup?

Now that I think of it, Cassie's hair also looks pretty darned good for someone who's been traipsing through the woods for days, sleeping outside.

• Speaking of makeup, tough-as-nails Sgt. Reznik's face is literally caked with foundation, mascara and bright red lipstick. We're talking Lucille Ball levels of face paint here. 

In fact the movie even goes out of its way to call attention to her over-the-top look. When Cassie and Reznik are fighting, she slams her against a glass partition so hard it cracks. As Reznik falls to the floor, we see a big ol' impression of her bright red lips on the glass.

I'm wondering... was this supposed to be a subtle clue that Reznik was an Other? After all, an alien probably wouldn't know much about human fashion, or how much makeup is too much. If that's really what they were doing, then kudos. It's seems a little too subtle for this film though.

 Since this is a Young Adult movie, it's state law that it has to contain a love triangle. The relationship between Cassie, Zombie and Evan is given so little attention though that I don't know why they even bothered with it at all. We get one brief scene where Zombie gives Evan a suspicious glance, and that's it.

 At the end of the movie Evan sacrifices himself to save Cassie and the squad, seemingly dying in the process. If there's a sequel to this film I guarantee he'll return though.

The 5th Wave is yet another example of a studio hoping to start up a successful Young Adult franchise. Unfortunately it's highly derivative, and features a muddled, by the numbers script. Stick with The Hunger Games, which seems to be the gold standard of YA films. I give it a C+.

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