Chaos Walking, 2021.
Directed by Doug Liman.
Starring Daisy Ridley, Tom Holland, Mads Mikkelsen, Demián Bichir, Cynthia Erivo, Nick Jonas, David Oyelowo, Ray McKinnon, and Kurt Sutter.
A dystopian world where there are no women and all living creatures can hear each other’s thoughts in a stream of images, words, and sounds called Noise.
The sad reality of 2021’s first card-carrying live-action blockbuster is that it’s destined to be remembered less for the content of its 109 minutes than the harried, near-decade-long quest to bring it to the screen.
After numerous personnel changes – including Charlie Kaufman taking a stab at the script in 2012 – this adaptation of Patrick Ness’ acclaimed 2008 novel “The Knife of Never Letting Go” was filmed under Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow) in late 2017.
Poor test screenings threw post-production into a tailspin, as reshoots couldn’t be conducted until April 2019 when stars Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley had completed their respective Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars commitments.
It’s almost another two years later and Chaos Walking is now finally shambling into those few picture-houses worldwide currently open for business, which if nothing else gives Lionsgate a perfect excuse for the film’s inevitably paltry commercial performance. It does less, however, to make sense of how predictably bland this YA relic truly is.
Things kick off in 2257 on the Earth-like planet of New World, where all the women have seemingly been rendered extinct and all remaining living things are affected by “Noise” – a force which causes their inner-most thoughts to be broadcast to those in the vicinity.
Todd Hewitt (Holland), a young man living on the New World, has his life turned upside down when he crosses paths with Viola Eade (Ridley), a woman from a nearby colony ship who crash-lands on the planet’s surface in order to scout it. Viola immediately attracts the attention of the locals, not only Todd but also the Machiavellian Mayor David Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen), whose designs on Viola prompt Todd to help her make a desperate break for freedom.
The cinematic landscape being what it is right now, the appeal of watching a lavish $100 million tentpole may override the desire for a cohesive, satisfying story – for some at least. But even as pure spectacle, the typically inconsistent Liman can’t seem to make head or tail of what his blockbuster is supposed to be. Despite some gorgeous individual images, the action sequences are bizarrely modest – aside from a fun horse vs. motorcycle chase – and by staging so much of the film on the same patch of forest green, the New World ends up feeling rather small.
Spectacle is one thing, but no YA movie is going anywhere in 2021 without a mighty hook, which is probably Chaos Walking‘s most winsome element. A world where women are scarce and men’s thoughts are splashed above their heads whether they like it or not is one ripe for the subtextual taking – all the more so in light of the #MeToo movement which didn’t even exist when the film began shooting.
And Liman, to his mild credit, throws us straight into the mix without hesitation; the idea of Noise is quickly established, with people’s mental monologues and mind’s eyes being projected in a bubble around them, forcing Todd to repeat internal mantras to stop others being privy to his most vulnerable thoughts.
More than anything else, the Noise gimmick often infuses the production with a surreal vibe, that such a large percentage of the dialogue has simply been recorded and dubbed-over in post-production as voiceover thoughts. Though it smartly creates an organic explanation for some of the more on-the-nose exposition – it’s literally their thoughts, after all – the script, co-penned by author Ness himself, does disappointingly little of interest with such an original conceit.
Noise is more effective as a comedic than dramatic tool, particularly when Todd proves interminably awkward around Viola – her being the first girl he’s ever seen and all. Todd can’t disguise his attraction to her, and though his thoughts are distractingly clean and respectful for a teenage boy – this is a PG-13 movie after all – there is an agreeable playfulness to these moments. One might even call them cute.
Despite a veneer of intriguing weirdness, and a twangy musical score from Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts which suggests a far more gamy sci-fi/western hybrid, the prospective edge is largely sanded-down in favour of generic YA hooey. Even with the various proper noun factions and entities you need to keep track of, the core premise is actually surprisingly straight-forward, given that by the end of act one Chaos Walking basically devolves into a single-minded “get the girl” chase narrative.
Were there much kineticism for thrill-seeking audiences to sink their teeth into then perhaps this might be enough, but without it such a slapdash script just won’t do. Though not terrible, it arguably does one worse by threatening to be quite dull, surely in part a result of how many times we’ve seen this style and tone warmed over in a decade-plus of YA adaptations. Like the recent Artemis Fowl, it’s painfully clear this thing was never going to have much momentum chasing the gold rush years after the likes of Bella Swan and Katniss Everdeen cleared out the mine.
That isn’t to say there aren’t kernels of neat ideas here, but shockingly little is made of the whole Noise concept beyond the odd chuckle, and it’s only a matter of time before we’re forced to suffer through the arrival of goofy alien creatures, a soul-suckingly boring race to fix a broken antenna, and a climax which threatens to escape the memory banks before it’s even over.
This is all infinitely more frustrating given the top-drawer cast. Holland isn’t stretching himself much by playing a mildly Peter Parker-esque awkward youth, but he rouses some passable laughs, while Ridley does her best to breathe life into a character who, disappointingly, is a sheer cipher from start to finish. Their chemistry is completely acceptable in the film’s sillier romantic divergences, but less so when the pic aspires to lunk-headed Serious Drama (which it does, often).
Elsewhere Mads Mikkelsen earns a few smirks as the fur coat-wearing megalomaniacal Mayor, who deserves at least an Academy Award nomination for delivering an expository monologue about “The Spackle” – the planet’s indigenous species – with a straight face. Considerably less is done with Demián Bichir as Todd’s father figure Ben and Cynthia Erivo as settler Hildy Black, while David Oyelowo appears fleetingly as one of Prentiss’ lackeys, a fiery preacher whose Noise is comprised of hateful bile bleated by the actor with the sort of hammy gusto it doesn’t nearly deserve.
On the plus side to it all, there’s something oddly liberating about watching the first entry into a planned film series whose realistic franchise chances have basically gone up in smoke before the inaugural film has even been released. Unsurprisingly the sequel bait is scant at best, and the film’s abrupt ending may well suggest that a more pointed setup was cleaved away during post-production.
After spending years necrotising on a studio shelf, it won’t surprise anyone to learn that Chaos Walking fritters away its kernels of interest and a wildly over-qualified cast on the usual tedious YA nonsense. Given how unlikely it is to ignite much theatrical interest globally, expect it to be white noise on your streaming service of choice before long.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.