The 5th Wave (2016)

02/04/2016  By  Joseph Wade     No comments

Teens deserve good science fiction just like the rest of us.

It seems unfair that they should be constantly force-fed boilerplate crap like The 5th Wave. The YA film market should be a field of boundless potential, but is instead a graveyard full of non-starters and dead ends. For every Hunger Games and Harry Potter out there, we have ten Mortal Instruments and Percy Jacksons. Dig another plot for The 5th Wave, which grinds fundamental concepts of the genre into dust in the interest of always keeping its young audience two steps ahead of the characters.

Based on a novel by Rick Yancey (the first in a planned trilogy, of course), The 5th Wave posits an alien invasion in five distinct stages. Global electromagnetic pulses, tsunamis, and viral pandemics make up the first three waves, knocking out our infrastructure and killing off half the planet. These waves are depicted in the film’s opening minutes and tossed aside almost as quickly. How a tsunami manages to hit central Ohio, our story’s setting, is anyone’s guess. It feels like the “previously on…” segment before a late-season episode of a CW series. The 5th Wave wants to make its point as quickly as possible: The aliens are here and our shit is fucked.

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Hold up, I think I just put on District 9 by mistake.

[SPOILER ALERT. If you’re reading FRC in the first place, you’re probably cool with spoilers. Otherwise…]

The fourth wave is where our story really begins. After the first three waves end life as we know it, Cassie (Chloë Grace Moretz) flees with her father (Ron Livingston) and young brother Sam (Zackary Arthur) to a survivor camp out in the woods. Soon after, the army rolls up and Colonel Vosch (Liev Schreiber) informs the survivors that they’re taking everyone to the nearest military base for their own safety, because the aliens (known as The Others) have taken human form and are on the march. The children are loaded up onto school buses and shipped out, then all the adults are rounded up and shot dead. Cassie manages to escape both fates, and makes it her mission to walk through the woods to save her brother from whatever horrible fate awaits him.

Aliens disguised as humans is a classic spin on the idea of “The Other.”

You don’t have to look very far at all to find examples of The Other in science fiction. They’re everywhere; from an angry mob hunting down Frankenstein’s monster to Mila Kunis falling for Channing Tatum’s dog-boy in Jupiter Ascending. Stories of people coming face to face with the unknown are a dime a dozen, and The 5th Wave taps into the fear of that unknown Other with wild, reckless abandon.

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Gee, I wonder if Liev’s “IMMUNE” badge is trying to tell us something.

One of the ur-texts for sci-fi otherization, and a film that The 5th Wave shamelessly rips off at multiple turns, has to be the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers. What makes that film continue to resonate through decades of ceaseless remaking is that it positions its pod people as an allegory for pretty much any of the perceived societal threats of the 1950s: Communism, McCarthyism, suburban creep, the buttoned-up complacency of the era, etc. While the film has specifically nonconformist undertones, it leaves its target vague enough that it could be read any number of ways. That’s one reason it’s stood up so well across generations; each attempt to remake it has plugged newer, more modern anxieties into the story’s DNA. Some are more successful than others, but the core story always remains the same.

The 5th Wave, on the other hand, has no time for the vagueness of allegory.

It blatantly tells us who to fear so we don’t get confused. Right away, the film feeds us two key pieces of information: First, the military is not to be trusted. They’re the only ones driving around in working vehicles after the EMPs, and also making quick work of separating kids from their parents. These guys are bad news the moment they arrive on the scene. Second, Vosch tells everyone that the aliens are referred to as Others, and that they could be anywhere. Ignoring the fact that characters we’ve never seen before show up and immediately inform us that the enemy could be in our midst, isn’t it amazingly condescending to flat out name your alien race Others? It’s like that joke from the last Muppets movie where Ricky Gervais played a dude named Badguy, only this time they’re completely serious about it.

Anyway, the otherization starts with the military, which is a whole political can of worms that the film smashes open and then barely even acknowledges. Vosch is the film’s de facto villain, the face of an mostly unseen alien force tasked with training the children brought back from the survivor camp and turning them into little soldiers. Among the new recruits are Cassie’s brother Sam, as well as her high school crush, Ben (Nick Robinson). Ben becomes the protagonist of this part of the film, which shifts into Divergent boot camp mode for half an hour. Each of the kids gets a designated codename, stripping them of their own identities and brainwashing them with new ones. Ben’s codename is ‘Zombie,’ probably because he’s a braindead piece of shit.

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“THEY’RE…HERE…ALREADY…YOU’RE–heeeey wait a minute…”

The kids are given special helmets with goggles that flash green to identify Others. We’re shown a hologram early on of what an Other actually looks like, and it’s basically a facehugger that attaches to your brain from inside your own skull. When the kids are sent into their first battle, these flashing green heads start popping up everywhere, and the kids gun them down with relative ease. Then they learn a couple of things real quick: A) Children react poorly when confronted with violence, B) the Others they’re killing aren’t actually alien at all, and C) as Ben dramatically intones, “Wait a minute, we’re the fifth wave!”. Yes, not only have The Others turned the military into a visage of evil, they’ve also brainwashed kids into becoming their own personal army. The military are not to be trusted, and neither are your sweet, innocent children.

This is actually one of the few genuinely disturbing ideas in the entire film. Imagine you’re preparing to go to war with an unknown enemy, and instead of hulking brutes armed to the teeth lumbering down the street, you’re met by squads of kids decked out in flak jackets. Worse, you think one of them might be the local high school’s star quarterback. And you thought he was such a nice kid… It’s a great idea on paper, but we only ever see it from the kids’ perspective, which really bungles the horror of it all.

You could potentially take this a step further, though, and say that if young people are to be feared because they’re so easily reprogrammed, should we not also fear the programmers? Who knows what wild ideas your kids are learning in school these days? Their teachers could be scrambling their brains right now with a bunch of political mumbo jumbo and you’d have no control over it! These teachers must be stopped! Home schooling’s the only way to be safe!

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Next you’re gonna tell me they’re giving our kids medicine and vaccines. What a crock, right?

See how this line of thinking can get out of control? If we start vilifying our most trusted institutions, what’s to stop us from vilifying all institutions, public and private? What’s to stop us from vilifying our own neighbors? The 5th Wave comes dangerously close to becoming a xenophobic nightmare where everyone shoots everyone else because no one knows who the hell to trust.

That brings us back around to Cassie.

While all this is going on, Cassie is still out in the wilderness, where she has a fateful encounter with a mysterious dreamboat named Evan (Alex Roe). He rescues her from an alien sniper (cleverly disguised as your average deer hunter), hides her from the Others, and very quickly falls in love with her. Here, the film shifts gears into Twilight mode as Cassie keeps trying to convince Evan to take her to the military base, while Evan pretty blatantly says he fell in love with her from the moment he saw her. Evan gets saddled with a lot of really clunky exposition, not the least of which is having to explain to Cassie that he is a human/Other hybrid sleeper agent who’s been on the planet for decades, and that while his species considers love to be a dirty trick, his human nature rejects that conditioning outright. (Let all of that sink in for a minute.)

Cassie has already internalized all the fearmongering the film has done up to this point, so she doesn’t trust Evan any further than she could throw him. He could be an Other for all she knows, and she only begins to trust him after watching him do decidedly human tasks like chopping firewood, maintaining a well-kept home, bathing his ripped body in the nearest lake… Trust is only earned through acts of humanity, up to and including Evan defending Cassie from other Others by using his freakishly strong alien muscles to throw dudes fifty feet into the air. (Also, he seems to be the only one who can do this, because later on Cassie pretty easily strangles an alien soldier with a computer mouse.)

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You could punch his face into dust and nobody would hear, but no, go ahead and fire that gun.

So what we have here is a film that dumbs down already easy material, not so that young audiences can grasp it, but rather so no one gets lost in the woods. The film leaps between its two stories so quickly that Cassie’s arc and Ben’s are never quite on the same page, so their reunion near the end feels remarkably unearned. But never let it be said that The 5th Wave doesn’t try to please its audience. There’s something for everyone here: Cassie gets to make out with a hot alien dude; Ben and Sam get to play war, mom and dad get to nap while the film lobs a thousand easy pitches right over the plate. What ought to be a thought-provoking sci-fi yarn about human nature and challenging authority somehow gets boiled down into a calculated concoction designed to be consumed by as many young people as possible. The 5th Wave isn’t the next great teen sci-fi series; it’s the cinematic equivalent of No Child Left Behind.

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About Joseph Wade

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Joseph Wade is secretly three bulldogs in a trenchcoat. Their favorite movie is Turner & Hooch.

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