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NPR Arts & Life

The Disappointment Invades In 'The 5th Wave'

Chloë Grace Moretz and Nick Robinson star in Columbia Pictures' "The 5th Wave."
Chloë Grace Moretz and Nick Robinson star in Columbia Pictures' "The 5th Wave."

In 2014's Clouds of Sils Maria, Chloë Grace Moretz plays a talented young tabloid magnet picked to star in a revival of a classy play alongside Juliette Binoche's weathered veteran actress. Moretz's character also headlines a silly, effects-heavy teen blockbuster, with sterile white backgrounds, bright red wigs, and faux-kinky leather getups. "I could feel my brain cells dying, one by one," Binoche declares after viewing it. Her assistant attempts an impassioned argument for teen sci-fi as a vehicle for emotional truth (she's played by Kristen Stewart, natch), but Binoche can't stop laughing long enough to listen.

The 5th Wave is essentially the movie Binoche was watching. And if it's tempting to dismiss her own... er, dismissiveness as elitist and out-of-touch, wait till you've seen the film. The Moretz showcase is an alien invasion tale, a disaster movie, a wartime allegory, and a Nicholas Sparks romance all rolled into one. It's based on a 2013 novel by Rick Yancey, and all those hodgepodge elements likely work better on the page: our own Petra Mayer praised it as "a grim and riveting read." Squeezing so many moving parts into a single motion picture would be admirably economical, if it didn't also feel so endless.

At only 18, Moretz has an uncommonly captivating screen presence. Even when she's reacting to the world of the film, she's forcing it to orbit around her. That serves her well here, as director J Blakeson (who last helmed the 2009 crime film The Disappearance of Alice Creed) does little but ask Moretz to react to CGI threats in the not-quite-near distance.

Chloë Grace Moretz, Zachary Arthur and Nick Robinson in Columbia Pictures' "The 5th Wave."
Chuck Zlotnick / Columbia Pictures
Chloë Grace Moretz, Zachary Arthur and Nick Robinson in Columbia Pictures' "The 5th Wave."

The film pits Cassie, a "totally normal high school girl," against an invading alien horde called The Others, whom we never see up close. Their ship appears hovering in the sky one day, like the spacecraft from District 9, and they set about mass extermination plans in the "waves" of the title: technology shutdowns, airborne illnesses, etc. In a familiar ironic twist, humankind has met a superior species that only wants to wipe them out. Other invading alien hordes could sue for plagiarism in intergalactic court.

But it takes a long while for Cassie, via her journal entries, to explain each of these waves, and still more time after that to establish her own storyline. At a refugee camp for survivors, military men led by a stone-faced Liev Schreiber slaughter her father and cart her younger brother off to a training facility, and while hunting them down, she falls into the care of an astonishingly good-looking, blue-eyed farm boy (Alex Roe) who mends her wounds while chopping firewood out back.

That's not even everything, because Cassie's high school crush (Nick Robinson, so good in The Kings of Summer) is also at the military base, and he's being made squad commander in a child army, butting heads with a tough goth girl played by current horror queen Maika Monroe. Maria Bello hovers maliciously in the background, with lipstick redder than Liza Minnelli's in Cabaret, instructing her impressionable youth on how to spot Others lurking inside the bodies of fellow humans. Storytelling is supposed to peel off the layers of an onion, not keep slapping on new ones, right?

Somewhere buried in the humorless muckety-muck of all this exposition lies an intriguing stew of YA influences, derivative though they may be: the political parallels and distrustful authority of The Hunger Games, the child-soldier morality tale of Ender's Game, the playtime's-over violence of a K.A. Applegate series. And squinting at the right times may reveal visual winks to The Birds and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The film's imagery finds a strange power on its own, too, as when Cassie spies her best friend in a quarantine ward, or during a sudden cutaway to a Thailand business district about to be ravaged by a tidal wave (is this what they mean by "global audience"?).

But it soon becomes apparent that these spunky teens, no matter how much they flirt with each other while brandishing firearms, are only running themselves in circles. Without giving away too much, know that Yancey has planned a trilogy of books, and that the film's three credited adapters include Akiva Goldsman—soon to be penning the next five waves of Transformers movies. Perhaps it was naive, like Binoche's fading screen queen in Sils Maria, to walk into a probable teen franchise starter and expect things to make narrative sense, or to find distinctive character-driven arcs, or to be fun at all. But perhaps it's OK to keep hoping for that better future where teen sci-fi is that vehicle for emotional truth, no matter how many times alien baddies and their unnecessary mythologies try to wipe out the genre altogether.

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