Good fiction is based in specific details, and good science fiction dystopias, in a cinematic landscape that’s full of them, need to be especially unique to stand out. Maybe that’s why too many movies rely on twist endings in order to make an impact. That lack of specifics, the overall murkiness in purpose, is what makes The 5th Wave one of the worst YA adaptations in recent memory. Even its aliens don’t quite know what they’re doing.
Remember when Ash says he admires the horrific Xenomorph monster in Alien?
Ash: You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.
Lambert: You admire it.
Ash: I admire its purity. A survivor … unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.
Alien remains one of the best horror films, and best alien films, of all-time because its stakes were so high in such a claustrophobic, focused space. Ellen Ripley’s objective was clear — survive — and the alien Xenomorph chasing her had a similarly pure, but oppositional viewpoint: kill Ripley. The film didn’t feel simplistic, in part due to H.R. Giger’s aesthetic and a cast of talented actors, and contemporary alien horror developed from there.
The 5th Wave, though it seemed to touch on but not commit to the fifth wave theory of terrorism, combines the “skinwalker” fear from more memorable films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a YA love triangle setup, complete with a cute boy who is part alien and part human.
The aliens in question, however, look exactly like humans, and some of them don’t even know they’re not humans, at least initially. Instead of giving the film’s alien vs. human conflict complexity, this ambiguity just seems to confuse the characters as much as it does the film’s audience. If you’re not a human, but you don’t know you’re not a human and you feel conflicted about killing humans, then what’s the big deal about being from another planet?
The film, like the book its based on, also fast-forwards through a great deal of the invasion, including waves 1-4. Cassie (Chloë Grace Moretz), the protagonist who’s seemingly always in a bad mood, makes a lot of statements about herself and attributes them to typical teenagers. She seems keen, especially in the novel, on convincing her audience that she is just a regular, normal human teenager who was thrown into a survivor’s role after the alien invasion.
There are no specifics given regarding what kind of teenager Cassie is, so her character doesn’t have any footholds for audience members to find while trying to relate. Even her objective lacks memorable details; she keeps her little brother’s favorite toy with her, which is a teddy bear named Bear. Another character keeps his little sister’s locket.
Lack of specificity is the downfall of many projects meant for adolescents; projects like The 5th Wave and The Maze Runner create characters so bland that they feel written by a team of adults hoping to appeal to teenagers, rather than kids about whom teens could feel strongly. I specifically remember watching The Maze Runner with my 12-year-old brother, who reacted when a minor character died by saying, “Oh no, not … that … guy. …” (One YA project that differentiates its characters exceptionally well is the CW’s The 100.)
Aside from not working as an adaptation of a children’s book, The 5th Wave’s primary failing is in its misunderstanding of what builds tension and dread in a sci-fi story. Its premise — who is the real enemy? — sets up a reveal that never really comes. Consider a different alien horror that does this reveal well: In 1982, John Carpenter released The Thing, a loose adaptation of the 1951 film The Thing From Another World. The film’s central drama lies in trying to determine which humans are actually infected, and, therefore, less human, and the film waits so long to reveal the difference between human and “Thing” that the terrific scene in which we finally see all hell break loose is impossible to forget.
Let’s say The 5th Wave wanted to avoid being billed as a horror film, so it didn’t include any actual alien beings. In that case, the humans in the story needed to be so memorable and so driven by unique objectives and personality traits that the film’s audience would feel true emotion watching them fight to maintain their individual humanity in the face of being overcome by “the Others.” The 5th Wave, which feels stale in almost every way, fails to pull this tension off, as well.
Take Invasion of the Body Snatchers, for example. Although some of the film’s most memorable moments are driven by body horror imagery — the man-dog face, the pods — the film’s true horror is in trying to determine humans from snatchers. One of the central differences between the two groups is that snatchers genuinely feel no emotion toward humans, and their creepy cold line-delivery sets them apart. Also, they identify humans with a distinctly alien reaction.
It doesn’t cost any money to come up with an alien tactic like Donald Sutherland’s now-infamous screech, so why not include a subtle difference between humans and aliens in The 5th Wave? If the filmmakers expected their audience to care about the difference between humans and aliens, they should have placed a couple signifiers in their makeup somewhere. As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen wrote in his essays on monstrosity and otherness, monsters are most effective when they resemble humans, but for one or two notable exceptions. They’re mostly a familiar sight, but something very specific about them is unnerving.
The 5th Wave could have succeeded by choosing to be either a novel-feeling YA romance, or PG-13 rated alien horror, but it fails in both realms.