You can learn anything by watching something done right and studying the exact same thing done wrong. So besides watching good movies to inspire you, watch bad movies to see what not to do as a screenwriter. One of the latest poorly reviewed films is “The 5th Wave.” Let’s dissect what made this movie so bad when the book was received so well.
If you haven’t read the book, you can truly study “The 5th Wave” from a cinematic point of view. Many novels and stage plays translate poorly into movies because the movie too closely follows the original source material, which makes for a dull visual story. That’s the huge problem with the beginning of “The 5th Wave.”
The basic story is that aliens have invaded the Earth and have decimated the world’s population in multiple waves where each wave is a different type of attack ranging from electromagnetic pulses to knock out machines to earthquakes, flash floods, and diseases. The premise is interesting, but the presentation of that initial premise is boring. To show the effects of each wave, we get to see short snippets of the disaster from tidal waves hitting coastal cities to people being quarantined and dying. Watching a parade of disasters strike is ultimately boring because how exciting can it be to watch a tidal wave blow apart the Tower Bridge in London?
Visually it’s interesting but from a story perspective, you have to ask why bother showing this when it has nothing to do with the main story, which is about a 16-year old girl in Ohio trying to survive? “The 5th Wave” spends most of Act I simply showing us one disaster after another with characters who pop up briefly, never to be seen again. The hero’s mother dies and the hero sees her best friend briefly in quarantine and you never see the hero’s best friend again.
Most likely the movie was simply following the book too closely, but from a cinematic point of view, what’s the point of introducing the hero’s best friend if she never plays a part in the rest of the story?
When the hero’s mother dies, we’re supposed to feel sad at the loss, but we briefly saw the mother in one scene before she’s dead in the next, so it’s hard to care about her at all.
What makes “The 5th Wave” so unsatisfying as a movie is the villain. The aliens, called the Others, are the villains, yet they’re never personified in any way to directly threaten the hero. Think of “Star Wars” where Darth Vader plays a major role from beginning to end. Since we constantly see him threatening and hurting others, we’re already cringing at the thought of the hero having to confront and fight him eventually.
In “the 5th Wave,” there is no single villain who represents a threat to the hero from beginning to end. Instead of a single person, we get the vague threat of aliens who we never get to see. When we finally do see a villain disguised as an Army commander, he pops up near the end and tries to kill the hero from a helicopter, but fails. Then he flies away. So there’s no anticipation or build up for the hero confronting the hero (unlike “Star Wars”) and there’s no final climactic battle at the end either.
In “Star Wars,” Luke clearly defeats Darth Vader by blowing up the Death Star. In “The 5th Wave,” the hero rescues her little brother while someone up blows up the military base the aliens were using, the alien villain tries to shoot the hero but fails, and the villain flies away. The hero does absolutely nothing to fight or defeat the villain. Imagine how exciting “Star Wars” would have been if someone else had blown up the Death Star while Luke watches. That would be boring, and that’s why the ending in “The 5th Wave” is so boring because the hero does nothing to defeat the villain.
How exciting would “Rocky” have been if instead of getting into the boxing ring to fight Apollo Creed, Rocky had simply sat in the audience and watched someone else beat up Apollo Creed?
“The 5th Wave” is dull with moments of excitement, but not enough to sustain the full movie. There’s no sense of finality in the hero defeating the villain (because the hero does not defeat the villain). There’s no sense of threat to the hero from the beginning because the villain is never personified until the end, and even in the end, the hero does little more than shoot at the hero and miss. Imagine if in “Star Wars,” Darth Vader shot at Luke’s X-Wing fighter escorts and kept missing. Imagine if Darth Vader swung his light saber at Obi-wan but kept missing. Real exciting, huh? That’s the level of excitement “The 5th Wave” offers where the villain never really threatens the hero directly.
“The 5th Wave” may be a good book, but as a movie, it fails miserably. The story structure is simply not there and it should be blatantly obvious to everyone except the people in Hollywood who will continue to ignore story structure as the foundation of a great movie while they focus on A-list actors, directors, and popular novels without ever thinking about structuring a story as a movie properly. Don’t make the same mistakes that Hollywood makes time and time again.
Make sure your story is visually compelling from start to finish, has a likable hero who’s constantly threatened by a villain, and who defeats the villain in a convincing and climactic struggle in the end. That’s the simple formula that “The 5th Wave” completely lacks, which means it’s not really a story at all but just a bunch of scenes thrown together that provide an emotionless moviegoing experience.