‘The 5th Wave’ is Jolting


I blame it on the weather! After braving both the roads and the hordes, I made it home from the store with my Snowpocalypse survival kit (bread, milk, toilet paper) and plopped into my comfy chair. As the cold whiteness slowly blanketed the city, I sat doing what I usually do is such situations; review the (many) low points of my life.

But several hours later I realized that that way lies madness and I had to shake things up. Refusing to be bullied by the weather I decided it was time to hitch the dogs to the sled and go see a movie.

Ahh … did you spot the flaw in my otherwise brilliant plan? January, in MovieLand®, is the time when Hollywood takes out the cinematic trash; flicks that, because of too little talent or too big egos, have gone belly up. Execs figure everyone’s back to work after the holidays not paying attention … so they jettison the junk.

Which left me up the you-know-what-creek. I scanned the offerings:

Ride Along 2: I didn’t even know there was, let alone see, Ride Along 1 and figured at this late date it would be folly to try to catch up.

The Revenant: It’s about a man stuck in the snow … exactly the thing I was trying to get away from.

Dirty Grandpa: Robert De Niro and Zac Efron go to spring break in Florida. They really should have called it Ted Stay Home and Read a Book.

By the Process of Elimination

Nothing looked promising and yet cabin fever was demanding I get up and get out before I started stalking old tricks on Facebook. I picked the one movie I didn’t know anything about, The 5th Wave, and headed to my nearest heca-deca-mega-plex. “After all,” I thought, “how bad can it be?”

It would be easy to stick in a joke here about how bad it turned out to be, but it didn’t turn out that way. The 5th Wave isn’t, by any estimation, a good movie but underneath the hokum and well-worn Hollywood tropes there’s a darkly deranged imagination rendering the experience one of the most bizarre I’ve had at the pictures.

Background first: The movie’s based on a 2013 novel by Rick Yancey and the first of a planned trilogy. It’s part of that whole young adult sci-fi genre which includes Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Divergent, etc.

The plot involves outer space aliens with one goal; destroy humanity and take over the Earth. But there’s a plucky young lady from Ohio, Cassie Sullivan, who is simply not having it. She will, single-handedly if need be, stop the aliens … who are known as The Others.

What I wasn’t prepared for is what a bunch of drama queens The Others are.

Imagine for a moment you’re an extraterrestrial roaming the galaxy in a spaceship the size of a small moon. One of your kids looks out the window as you pass Earth. “Neat,” the little brat says, “all green and blue. Gimme it for my birthday.” It seems likely that, with all the technological powers you possess, you’d just flip a switch or beam a laser and everyone on the planet dies, allowing you to take possession.

But Yancey’s not gonna settle for something as pedestrian. The Others, instead, engage in a protracted series of highly theatrical “Waves.” The First involves hitting the planet with an electromagnetic pulse taking out all electricity, motors, engines, etc. dragging us back to the Stone Age. For the Second Wave The Others make a bunch of earthquakes causing all the oceans to flood all the continents.

There’s now about 4 billion people left, so for Wave Three The Others infect the world’s bird population with a deadly plague, wiping out 97 percent of the remaining survivors.

At this point I’d be like “Fine, you want the place so bad, take it. Just quit showing off!” But the few humans left band together in camps trying to eke out a life from whatever they can scavenge. It’s all very “Little House of the Prairie” meets Lord of the Flies.

Fourth Wave! The Others leave their ship and come down to earth.

Time for the Fifth Wave

I’m going to say “Spoiler Alert” here, but really it happens fairly soon and you can see it a mile off; The Others inhabit the bodies of some of the humans. Pretending to be members of the army, they round up the survivors, (here’s where it’s starts getting weird) killing all the adults and taking the kids to a giant army compound. The young’uns don’t know the adults are dead and believe the soldiers are the good guys. They’re told they’ll be trained to recognize Others pretending to human and it’ll be their job to kill them. (Instead, they’ll really be killing the remaining adult survivors.) So the kids themselves are the Fifth Wave! Oh, those cunning, nasty aliens.

Now the movies dips into some very disturbing imagery. What follows is your standard Hollywood war movie montage of new recruits learning how to climb walls and shoot guns, bonding over poker games in the barracks and getting new grunt names: Zombie, Nugget, Ringer, Teacup, Oompa …

Except they’re children. Teacup is an eight year old freckle-faced redhead running around in camo with a machine gun strapped to her back! It’s like Quentin Tarantino directing an episode of Sesame Street.

Things get even blacker when the squad is airlifted into a combat zone; these adorable little moppets running through a bombed-out urban landscape hurling grenades and firing assault rifles at adults who are trying to mow them down as well. It gets stranger when you realize they’ve actually been manipulated into killing the good guys.

Here’s where we enter Invasion of the Body Snatchers territory since we don’t know who’s a human and who’s an Other and between the child soldiers and the overwhelming paranoia my jaw was on the floor. Movies have certainly changed since The Little Rascals.

And somewhere in all of these we follow the exploits of our heroine, Cassie, who managed to escape the army and is hiding out in the woods planning to rescue her little brother. Along the way she meets a handsome young man who saves her life but has mysteries of his own; she’s falling for him but still carrying a torch for Ben, the quarterback from her high school and now the leader of the squad sent into battle.

So we switch from moments of terrible violence to scenes of yearning, teen-aged angsty love, à la Team Edward and Team Jacob from Twilight or Katniss’ struggle between Peeta and the Hemsworth who isn’t Chris from The Hunger Games. I think at some point my brain short-circuited and smoke started pouring out of my ears.

So is The 5th Wave any good? I don’t know how to answer that. It’ll never, ever, win any prizes, but I know I was never bored and I can’t wait to see the next two installments.

But as I was sliding home on the ice-covered roads after the movie I had a really chilling thought. I will assume that Cassie and her cadre are ultimately victorious (I simply can’t believe Yancey’s vision is so dark he’d kill everyone off.) But if the aliens get in their ship and go home that means the earth will be ruled by nothing but teenagers.

I hope The Others save me a space on the last helicopter out of Saigon.


The Fifth Wave poster courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based writer and critic.

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