Taken on its own, “The 5th Wave” is an effectively decent post-apocalyptic, young-adult, world-in-the-balance survival thriller. Yet the multitudinous devotees of Rick Yancey’s wildly successful 2013 novel may have more issues with what has been edited or left out entirely than with what’s survived the transition. Still, the film will ride the inevitable wave of fandom and newcomers alike to moderate box office and a healthy afterlife, allowing producers Tobey Maguire and Graham King to move forward with production of the other two books in the author’s proposed trilogy, “The Infinite Sea” (2014) and “The Last Star,” to be published later this year.
Enough of Yancey’s ambitious narrative has made the final cut to reflect an arrestingly original spin on trendy genre tropes. In the present day, Ohio teenager Cassie Sullivan (Chloe Grace Moretz) does what modern young people do: drink beer at unsupervised house parties, moon over boys — in this case, oblivious high-school football heartthrob Ben Parish (Nick Robinson) — dote on her little brother Sam (Zackary Arthur), and banter with her laid-back father, Oliver (Ron Livingston).
But Cassie’s cozy suburban cocoon is soon shattered by the arrival of a massive alien ship coincidentally floating just above their street. Though its occupants, dubbed “the Others,” are silent and unseen, they soon make their intentions clear by mounting a series of offensives. The first wave is an electromagnetic pulse that darkens the planet; the second wave consists of massive tsunamis and thunderous earthquakes; the third wave decimates most of the survivors via a deadly virus that claims Cassie’ mother, Lisa (Maggie Siff), but to which some remain immune; the fourth wave reveals that selected humans, dubbed Silencers, are actually Others intent on hunting down the hardy few who’ve scattered to the wind; and the fifth wave is, well, the final two-thirds of the film.
Showing up at a refugee camp in the woods, Cassie, Sam and Oliver are just in time for the arrival of Vosch (Liev Schreiber), a take-charge military colonel who orders the children bused to Wright Patterson Air Force Base and the adults to the camp meeting hall. What happens next is chaotic but necessarily inevitable, leaving Cassie alone and on the run with a scavenged M-16 and a determination to rescue Sam from the base. Along the way, she’s shot by a mysterious sniper on a highway clogged with derelict vehicles (shades of “The Walking Dead,” which shares with the film Georgia locations and more than a little visual iconography). She wakes up in the rustic cabin of Evan Walker (Alex Roe), a Chris Pine-ish hunk who insists on accompanying her but seems to be harboring a secret of his own.
The final act takes place at the base itself, and involves both the fate of the children and the improbable reunion of Cassie with Ben (by now nicknamed “Zombie”). Key players in this sequence include the tough-as-nails Goth teen warrior Ringer (Maika Monroe), the composite character Sgt. Reznik (Maria Bello in a thankless role), and a clutch of frighteningly young soldiers whose mission is not what it seems.
Yancey’s influences are as obvious as they are legion, yet the source novel managed to blend the bittersweet yearnings of an adolescent girl on the cusp of adulthood with the demands of a cinematic global catastrophe that forged her into a hardened, ruthless survival machine. Nevertheless, she understood intuitively that humanity was all she had left against an unseen yet brutal foe.
This message gamely survives a screenplay by Susannah Grant, Akiva Goldsman and Alex Pinkner that seems perversely determined to keep the best parts of the book out of the movie (in the same way the much-discussed Battle of Yonkers didn’t make it into “World War Z”). Gone is the explanatory prologue, the siege at Cassie’s house during the third wave, her odyssey in the woods, most of the fallout from her gunshot wound and the bulk of the immensely appealing and very well-written common-sense internal monologues that make Cassie, well, Cassie. The gambit might have worked, except for what’s been substituted in their stead. Carrie and Ben are friendlier before the siege; the mostly off-screen second wave has been literalized with unnecessary (but not bad) CGI; the first four waves themselves are hurriedly compressed into the film’s initial half-hour; and the denouement plays as rushed and perfunctory. And Cassie doesn’t drink beer, either.
Director J Blakeson, whose only previous feature was the small but well-received British kidnap thriller “The Disappearance of Alice Creed” (2010), works well with his generally fine cast, yet seems increasingly unsure of the film’s pace and flow. Moretz makes the most of a script that gives her a softer Cassie than on the page, while Livingston, who’s looking more and more like George Clooney, and Schreiber, who can pivot plausibly from good to evil on a dime, play it like the pros they are. As the before-and-after faces of Cassie’s budding sexuality, Robinson and Roe make up in soulful looks what they lack in charisma.Craft contributions are above par, led by Jon Billington’s evocative and detailed production design; the sound mix emphasizes gunshots and explosions to a distracting degree.
Like the adaptations of Steven King’s “Dreamcatcher” and “The Mist,” “The 5th Wave” suffers primarily from a few key decisions that undercut the good intentions. Yet with two films left in the trilogy, the filmmakers still have the time and opportunity to get this quality material better than right.