Friday, January 29, 2016

Review - The 5th Wave

          The 2016 film season has commenced! And it has a lot to live up to indeed; as I concluded last month, 2015 may very well have been the year that Hollywood finally learned how to do a reboot correctly, with the likes of Jurassic World and Mad Max: Fury Road showcasing the same degree of imagination that made their predecessors shine. And let us not forget that Star Wars: The Force Awakens continues to break records and renew overall interest in the science fiction genre, shattering the long-standing stereotype of Star Wars fans as fat, neck-bearded white men with its popularity among women and those men who are not necessarily fat and neck-bearded (as evidenced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt's appearance in a Yoda outfit [1]), across a large spectrum of racial and ethnic diversity (which is also reflected in its cast). Fortunately, there is a lot to look forward to this coming year; Deadpool is the next big release that I have on my radar for a review on Feb. 12th, and the rest of the year is sprinkled with such titles as Captain America: Civil War, Independence Day: Resurgence, and Star Wars: Rogue One. And yes, I even intend to suck it up and endure what I am expecting to be the gut-wrenching experiences of the Ghostbusters reboot and Warcraft. Though, I don't even think those two films could be any worse than the sleep-inducing, poor-excuse for science fiction that is The 5th Wave.
          The 5th Wave is my first film of 2016, and it had the unfortunate privilege of coming right after The Force Awakens. That said, I don't think one can attribute my poor perception of it to my view being tainted by Star Wars - its rating on Rotten Tomatoes speaks for itself [2]. The 5th Wave is a young adult sci-fi story about a high school girl's struggle to find her little brother amidst a not-too-subtle alien invasion (and any attempts by the aliens at being subtle are so predictable that one would be able to call their bluff immediately). And throughout the whole mess, we are exposed to scenes of adolescent romance, not unlike the fangirl fantasies of the Twilight series, teenage angst, not unlike a high school kid getting mad at her parents for catching her sneaking out at night, and the blind following of some supposedly righteous, macho, high school hunk leader, not unlike Thomas from the Maze Runner series (which, if you recall, was one of my few criticisms of that series). The ironic thing is that, in a film based on an alien invasion, we get to see all of these various facets of a cliched high school girl's life, but we never actually get to see the aliens at all. It didn't take me long to hypothesize that The 5th Wave was based on another trendy young adult sci-fi novel. And, unsurprisingly, I learned after seeing the film that my prediction was correct. Don't get me wrong - I have no problem with young adult fiction (again, my overall approval of the Maze Runner series is proof of this), but, as with everything else, it has to be done correctly, which, I will point out is difficult to do. I was reading Poe, Hawthorne, and Descartes when I was in high school, so even doing something correctly that deliberately aims to be a bar below perfect, such as teenage fiction, is already hampering oneself. Still, I think it is safe to say that The 5th Wave didn't even achieve this bar: as the novel's Wikipedia page describes, The 5th Wave is a novel written by Rick Yancy that has been compared to Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games and Cormac McCarthy's The Road and "should do for aliens what Twilight did for vampires" [3]. LOL.
          The 5th Wave opens up with typical high school girl Cassie Sullivan (Chloe Grace Moretz) cautiously walking through the woods of rural Ohio with an M16 (yes, my first thought was whether or not she knows how to use that). She eventually comes across an abandoned gas station where she finds a lone survivor who she, with her itchy trigger finger, proceeds to shoot. It's at this point that we are taken on a flashback and given a brief overview of Cassie's high school life and the events leading up to that point. One night, Cassie and her best friend (I don't even remember her best friend's name - I think it was Liz) are at your "typical" high school house party. And by "typical", I mean roughly a hundred people at a rather secluded three-story house with red Solo cups, kegs, beer pong, and sex. Now, I will admit that I wasn't the most popular person in high school (quite the contrary - I tended to be one of the more controversial ones), but I am confident in saying that high school house parties aren't quite like that. This was more akin to a sports-celebration-macho frat party at San Diego State, not like anything I ever heard of in high school. But I digress. At this party, we are introduced to Ben Parish, Cassie's secret crush and high school football hero, who she is far too bashful to approach (take a wild guess as to what happens between the two of them by the end of the movie). It is during class the next day (apparently, that party was on a school night), that the events of the film start to get "interesting" (finger quotes emphasized): aliens invade. Out of nowhere. In a space ship that just decides to park itself over suburban Ohio. Cassie narrates that the aliens just hang out, dormant, for the first few day, after which the "1st Wave" happens: they unleash an electromagnetic pulse across the country (presumably, the world, but that is never made clear in the film). Airplanes just drop out of the sky and explode. Cars cease to operate. Cell phones and other gadgets become little more than paperweight. Humans are forced to resort to Dark Age sources of lighting and power when the "2nd Wave", a ground-shattering earthquake, happens. Dams burst and flood the country. Tsunamis devour coastal cities. Trees are uprooted. Faults and fissures open up and disrupt the landscape. Again, the body count rises. I should note here that I found myself wondering how the hell the aliens were able to cause a giant earthquake, especially given that the space ship still appeared to just sit there, not doing anything. It's after the earthquake where humans start to form refugee camps and abandon cities when the "3rd Wave" happens: the aliens mutate the Avian Flu into a much more potent form and release it as a plague amongst the remaining humans. Apparently, the aliens weren't watching CNN - Ebola and SARS would have been just as potent without having to take the time to mutate the flu.
          It's around the time of the "4th Wave" that Cassie's flashback starts to catch up with the opening scene. Cassie's mother dies of the flu and their father takes her and her little brother, Sam (Zackary Arthur), to a camp of survivors to try and rebuild human civilization and defeat the aliens. Not long after they arrive, however, the US Army shows up and explains that, for the "4th Wave", the aliens have descended from their ship and are now among the remaining humans, assassinating them. The catch is that the aliens have the ability to possess human hosts, making it difficult to distinguish them from those unafflicted. Accordingly, the military proceeds to screen all of the survivors for infection, separating the children from the adults and bussing all of the children to their military base in order to train them to fight the aliens while all of the adults get gunned down under the pretext that they are just an unruly mob. During all of the commotion, however, Cassie gets separated from the group that gets bussed to the military base, including her brother, but also manages to escape the firefight at the camp and flee into the woods after picking up an M16, which she doesn't hold on to for long. It is here that the flashback ends and the rest of the story unfolds. The remainder of the film can be understood as having two main storylines to it: the exploits of Cassie and her quest to get her brother back, and the life of the kids at the military base, lead by Cassie's former crush Ben Parish, who now goes by the nickname "Zombie". And it's from this point that I can say that the rest of the movie is more or less a crossover between Twilight and the Maze Runner, only far less creative and far more predictable, to the point where one could walk out of the theater merely guessing what happens and likely not be too far off. The big "twist" in the story (and by "twist", I mean "most predictable thing in the entire movie") is that the military are the ones who are actually possessed by the aliens and that they are training the kids to be the "5th Wave": armed child commandos who are tasked with going out and eliminating the remaining survivors. And while the children are being trained, Cassie develops a pseudo-romance with another "survivor", Evan Walker (Alex Roe), who, in another poor attempt at adding a twist to the story, also turns out to be an alien, but a nice one. By the end of the film, Evan reveals to Cassie who the military really are while Ben and crew discover the truth through trial and error. The ending scene is a daring rescue by Ben and Cassie to liberate Sam and the rest of Ben's child troopers while Evan lays siege to the military base, prompting an evacuation of the aliens and allowing the head honcho of the aliens, Vosch (Liev Schreiber), to escape, thus leaving the series open for a (god help us) second installment.
          It's usually at this point in one of my film reviews that I go over the pros and cons of a film and weigh them against each other. However, I just can't seem to do that in this case. The 5th Wave does absolutely nothing right - it managed to somehow botch every possible aspect of the film so that, try as I may, I cannot find anything good to say about it. The plot was so generic that you would think the writers and producers have a shelf of stock storylines that they just randomly recycle over and over, foregoing the effort of putting any kind of creativity into the narrative. The characters had absolutely no depth or complexity to them, and any scene where they tried creating any semblance of depth or complexity backfired miserably, instead making the scene out to be more melodramatic and silly. For example, when Ben and his newly formed squadron of child soldiers are training at the military base, they are joined by a new recruit, a girl named Ringer, who, within the first five seconds of appearing on screen, proceeds to go up to Ben and announce "I am not taking orders from you" while turning to another boy in Ben's unit and declaring "If you look at me the wrong way, I will punch your lights out", after which she begins to describe how she got kicked out of her former unit for essentially being too "edgy". Effectively, this character might as well have barged into the room and grumbled "grrrr I'm a badass grrrr" and it would have had the exact same effect. This is like the kid in high school who thinks he would be "Mr. Cool" if he walked into the classroom wearing a leather jacket with the collar popped up while referring to his teacher as "daddy-o". Rule No. 1 in effective character development tells us that you must show us the content of one's character, not tell us. It would be one thing for J.K. Rowling to simply tell us that Bellarix Lestrange is a bad person, but it's an entirely different thing to witness Bellatrix impale Dobby with a knife. However, The 5th Wave felt like it didn't even need to follow the fundamental rules of storytelling and thought it could get away with doing the exact opposite.
          The romance scenes in the film were also unbearably cheesy. For example, there was a scene not too long after Cassie meets Evan where she stumbles across him swimming in a lake. And, as one can expect from unrealistic young adult romance fiction, Evan is a burly, white hunk with eight-pack abs that can do everything from fighting to cooking to swimming to chopping wood to hunting and everything else that society believes a high school girl's "dream guy" should be. I am pretty sure that Evan was either taking steroids or those abs were CGI for how ridiculous this scene was. Cassie, predictably enough, giggles like a little girl and then quickly withdraws when he glances in her direction. And I can't even say anything good about the special effects in the film, if only because there were no special effects. The entire movie was Cassie et al. running around random wooded areas or buildings. We never see the aliens at any point. No alien technology. Nothing. The ONE characteristic that I thought might have been interesting was the fact that the film took place in Ohio. I am totally for English-language cinema shirking the norm of Los Angeles/New York/London production studios in favor of telling a story from a different perspective. But this is severely undermined when the story sucks. It's a pity because disaster movies are rarely told from the perspective of someone in Midwestern America. We've seen what happens if California were to fall into the Pacific Ocean (2015's San Andreas and 2009's 2012), if New York City were to be attacked by monolithic monsters (2008's Cloverfield), and even if Texas politics were to have a run-in with a Mexican drug lord and ex-Federale (2010's Machete), but I can't think of any recent movies that took place in the Midwest, at least, not any memorable ones.
          In short, The 5th Wave is one that you would be best served by just skipping altogether. It is unfortunate that, after the great year for sci-fi cinema that was 2015, 2016 is off to such a bad start. If you are expecting aliens and advanced technology in The 5th Wave, move along. If you are looking for solid characters involved in serious drama, go watch The Force Awakens or The Revenant for a second (or third) time. If you are looking for a good romance story for a quick turn-on, you would probably be better served reading a Danielle Steele novel (which is saying something). If you are a high school kid who thinks that this movie is great, then congratulations - you have absolutely no idea of what art and science fiction really are. That said, I expect the next film on my review schedule to make up for many of deficiencies that The 5th Wave tainted 2016 with already. Deadpool is scheduled to be release on Feb. 12th.

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