The Earth has come under attack in The 5th Wave. The world is in ruins following three progressively deadly waves of aggression from the alien invaders known as The Others. And then, in the fourth wave, The Others take human form and live among the remaining survivors, killing them off one by one. It is in the wake of this fourth wave that teenager Cassie (Chlöe Grace Moretz) is separated from her younger brother Sam, and witnesses a massacre perpetrated by the US army. Cassie sets out on her own, trying to survive while never knowing who to trust. Meanwhile, Sam and the other children that have been rounded up undergo military training to prepare them for a fifth wave of attack.
And of course, things aren't what they seem. They never are in this genre of story, which pits steely teenage girl heroines against vast conspiracies. These stories tend to get interesting when they start casting a skeptical light on authority, the youths at the center of the story made to question the adults that claim to have their best interests at heart. But that doesn't quite happen here. The movie is very limp, unable to draw intrigue from elements that are compelling in theory. It just feels like nothing interesting is going on for long chunks of this story, the film in a perpetual state of table setting.
The film is at its most powerful in its opening moments. A gun wielding Cassie enters a rundown store on her own, and encounters another human being. She ends up killing him, afraid that he might be one of The Others. Right away, the film sets up an atmosphere of paranoia, and establishes that the main character is both fallible and capable of violence. And then the film flashes back to before the disaster, and starts squandering the momentum gained in that first sequence. And then the film slows down further once it catches up with the present, the story stalling as it splits up into two branches that feel really disconnected from each other.
On the one side is Cassie ending up in the care of Evan (Alex Roe). On the other end is her former classmate Ben (Nick Robinson) leading a squad of child soldiers in the military base where her brother is. Neither story features much movement, with all of the actual plot development saved for when the twist is deployed. What we get instead are interminable scenes of teenagers not really knowing what they're doing, fighting no foes and generally facing no threats. There are hints of romance, but it is all very routine. There is so little incident in the middle chunk of this picture that it might as well have skipped ahead.
The twist adds a few wrinkles, but it isn't sufficiently explored. It certainly makes the threat seem insidious at first, but then any subsequent thought given to the development mostly makes them seem stupid. Without giving too much away, their plan seems needlessly convoluted given their clear advantages in almost very aspect of warfare. The filmmaking is okay, but there just isn't a whole lot to see. Chlöe Grace Moretz is fine in the lead role, but this is far from the best that the young actress tends to have to offer. She seems to have little chemistry with either of her two male co-stars, though that might just be an effect of the film's clunky storytelling.
The 5th Wave is the most boring example of the increasingly tedious teenage-girl-hero-in-the-post-apocalypse genre of cinema. Perhaps further installments will get more interesting, now that the twist is out of the way. But as it stands, UT doesn't really deserve its inevitable sequels. Though it gets off to a reasonably strong start, the movie just wears away the goodwill with endless table setting with little payoff. At the very end, it still feels like the movie is just setting up, holding off on any developments that might push these characters into more interesting directions. Each story needs to stand on its own, and this movie doesn't have enough meat to justify its existence.