If only YA novel adaptation The 5th Wave didn’t collapse under the weight of its clunky adherence to the source material, says MacDara Conroy

The machine-gun blast of an opening suggests that The 5th Wave might well be a cut above the usual bloodless, peril-free YA teenybopper fare. Indeed, a decided horror-movie air looms over Chloë Grace Moretz’s Cassie as she stalks an abandoned gas station for supplies. She’s a tooled-up survivor of an as-yet-unknown apocalypse, her hackles raised when she hears a voice calling for help from the back – a voice that cannot be trusted, despite the guilt she feels when her survivor’s instinct kicks in and she pulls the trigger.

Sounds like a good movie, right? If only it maintained that grim, gritty momentum beyond the strong initial premise, and didn’t immediately collapse under the weight of its clunky adherence to the source material. That would be Rick Yancey’s 2013 novel of the same name, the first of a series (naturally) detailing the travails of the determined Cassie in the aftermath of an alien invasion that’s supposedly knocked the world back into Neolithic times (though at most it seems to have merely rendered smartphones useless – hello self-deprecating product placement).

As is the nature of these things, there has to be an overarching gimmick, and in this case it comes in the form of successive ‘waves’ of attacks – an EM pulse, tsunamis, even genetically engineered avian flu – by unseen overlords inhabiting a curiously small and poorly animated mothership. Most of these ‘waves’ are glossed over in a swift montage with an info-dump voiceover from Cassie, an easy storytelling out that recurs – abetted by rushed mouthfuls of dialogue – whenever the convoluted plotting needs another shovel of exposition to make sense beyond the page.

But the crux of the story is pretty straightforward. Cassie gets separated from her family as the alien Others (Yancey struggled hard for a name there, didn’t he?) begin their fourth wave – which prompts the military (represented by Maria Bello and Liev Schrieber in fatigues) to round up human survivors into camps (you can see where this is going) – and strives to reunite her little brother with his beloved teddy bear. I’m serious. Along the way she pours out her teenage angst in her diary, has a chaste flirtation with a mysterious and handsome stranger (Alex Roe, who gets to show off his footballer physique for the ladies – and some gents) and essentially fulfils the trope of Vulnerable Yet Strong Female Protagonist.

Unbeknownst to Cassie, however, little brother Sammy (Zackary Arthur, Transparent) has been drafted as a child soldier in a unit of misfits that just happens to be headed by Cassie’s high-school crush (Nick Robinson, who was much better in 2013’s The Kings of Summer) and tasked with the final elimination of the alien threat. Or are they? Cue dramatic pause! But really, I don’t even need to ask, as you’ll see the plot twists – or rather mild swerves – coming well before the film itself becomes aware of them.

The 5th Wave treads on well-worn territory, with all the markers of the YA genre: the love triangle, the adolescent self-absorption, the superficial faux maturity. Beyond that, the story follows the likes of The Hunger Games by borrowing liberally from other, better-loved movies and headline-grabbing stories, in this case smatterings of the ‘80s sci-fi series V, Roddy Piper B-movie classic They Live, the romantic complications of Twilight and the terrible phenomenon of child soldiers – the latter something it shares with 2013’s Ender’s Game. Another thing it shares with that dud is a curious preoccupation with the military, particularly gun fetishism. At times it’s worryingly fascist, despite our heroes’ ostensible opposition to the conformist imagery and messages throughout. If they were going for a Paul Verhoeven, Starship Troopers tone, they missed it by a mile.

At least visually it has something going for it. Director J Blakeson (The Disappearance of Alice Creed), working with cinematographer Enrique Chediak (Bafta nominee for 127 Hours, and with YA previous in The Maze Runner), does have an eye for an evocative image, occasionally lingering on a fixed object to allow us to soak in the drama of what’s preceded. But he also seems to have a predilection for bum shots, the lens lighting on Moretz’s bedenimed derriere, or bared thighs, far more often than is truly necessary. The film’s only other strong female character even comments on the demeaning sexism of the male gaze, but not without her own deliberate ass shot.

Speaking of the only other strong female character, that’s a barely recognisable Maika Monroe (The Guest, It Follows) as the descriptively named Ringer, a bad-ass goth mercenary with a discipline problem who’s far and away the best thing among this hodge-podge of clichés, and yet is relegated to second fiddle behind the bland babyfaced James Franco-isms of Robinson and the remarkably convenient super-abilities of Roe’s designer-stubble beefcake. Apparently the second book in Yancey’s series focuses on Monroe’s character in greater detail, so here’s hoping the sequel to this awful film – if there is a sequel – might atone for these cinematic sins.

The 5th Wave opens nationwide on Friday January 22nd