There’s something to be said about lowered expectations. Walking into the cinema for Chaos Walking, mine were positively subterranean. And thus, when credits rolled on the YA sci-fi adventure, my first thought was “could have been worse”. Unfortunately, it could also have been a lot better.
My aforementioned expectations for this film was born from its notably troubled production. Lionsgate had optioned Patrick Ness’ YA novel trilogy back in 2011 already, right in the height of the genre craze. But struggles with keeping a director attached meant that it only began filming in late 2016 with Doug Liman at the helm. By that point, the film had also already gone through five different screenwriters with numerous rewrites, that group boasting such disparate voices like Charlie Kaufmann and John Lee Hancock. And all those clashing visions meant that by the time the first cut of the film was turned in, Lionsgate execs reportedly considered it to be so bad as to be “unreleasable”. Yikes.
Lionsgate believed though that this $100 million production could still be rescued, so they brought in a sixth writer, original author Ness himself, to fix the script. Thus expensive reshoots were ordered which would take three weeks. The problem was that starring in this film was Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley and they didn’t have three weeks. The young actors had just been rocketed into superstardom with their respective roles as Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Rey in the Star Wars films, and now had very packed schedules. And so, to the shelf Chaos Walking went until Holland and Ridley could squeeze in time to film new material, which Liman – who had established a reputation for wrangling together difficult productions with complex concepts, such as with Edge of Tomorrow – could then tinker on and work back into the movie.
Throw in a global pandemic to add extra delays and it would be nearly five years since cameras first rolled on Chaos Walking. It’s a decade since Lionsgate first announced they were adapting Ness’ work. And, well, it has not been worth the wait. And the reason why I just spent over 400 words explaining Chaos Walking’s production issues is because I found that entire saga to be far more memorable than the movie we eventually got.
That would not appear to be the case on paper. Like just about all entries in the YA craze – which Chaos Walking now feels like an archaeological throwback to – the film featured an eye-catching crazy original concept at its core. Set in a human colony on the far-off alien planet of New World, Todd Hewitt (Holland) and the people of the last surviving settlement known as Prentisstown have to contend with “The Noise”, a mysterious local phenomenon that causes the thoughts of all males to become audible and visible around them. The Noise doesn’t affect human females somehow, a twist that drove the native alien species, the Spackle, to completely eradicate all females years before because of… reasons.
With no females, no new children have been born and Todd finds himself the youngest member of Prentisstown, raised by his adoptive fathers Ben (Demián Bichir) and Cillian (Kurt Sutter), as he tries to live up to the brutal ideals set by colony leader, Mayor David Prentiss (Madds Mikkelsen). That’s when he’s not spending his time trying to master his uncontrollable Noise, an effect which manifests as swirling, inky conjurations of light and sound above the heads of the all-male population. Todd’s noise is often a barrage of thoughts and commentary, but some can control it better than others, even make solid looking illusions like the one Todd uses to frighten Prentiss’ asshole bully son Davy (Nick Jonas) or the constant display of fire and brimstone that surrounds apocalyptic preacher Aaron (David Oyelowo).
Todd’s relatively peaceful existence is shattered though when a scouting ship from the second wave of colonizers finally arrives at New World. But when the planet-wide effect that causes the Noise nearly destroys the craft, it leaves Viola (Ridley) as the only survivor of the ensuing crash. And, much to the shock of Todd who discovers her, Viola is a girl, the first he’s ever seen. Even more shocking to Viola though, is that she can see/hear all of Todd’s thoughts, most of which appear to be about how pretty she is and how much he wants her to kiss him.
When Prentiss finds out about and captures Viola (Todd inadvertently informs the whole town by not being able to control his Noise), the leader, with the fiery consultation of Aaron, deems her and the ensuing colonists a threat due to some painfully nebulous reasons and sets out to kill her. Luckily, the capable Viola has a little something to say about that. Mostly using her smarts and some explosive high-tech doodads the likes of which the locals have never seen, she manages to escape custody, but needs Todd’s help to make it to a nearby old settlement that could have a transmitter to allow Viola to contact her ship. Cut to a string of chase scenes through wild nature featuring everything from knife-fights with giant alien squid, to some hilarious nudity, to an unexpectedly disturbing amount of animal violence.
That whiplash of tone and subject is kept relatively in check through Liman’s solid directing and the easy-going charisma of Holland and Ridley. Both are firmly in their respective wheelhouses – Todd is an immensely likable but awkward and out of his depth rambler, while Viola is a reserved but very capable heroine – and nail their roles. I would have liked to peek more inside Viola’s head to understand her motivations a bit better, but I guess that comes from the comparison of Todd’s thoughts being on permanent display. An effect I expected to be distracting but which the effortlessly charming Holland makes work. And when the story gets pretty dark and grim in places, he carries those emotional scenes superbly even without the swirling cloud of exposition dump above his head.
But here’s the problem with Chaos Walking. It doesn’t matter how original and striking your premise is, or how captivating your two leads, the rest of the movie still needs to live up those aspects. There are a few plot hole clunkers, most notably that somehow in a world where everybody’s innermost random thoughts are basically literal flashing billboards above their heads, some characters still managed to never give away a rather huge secret for years that factors quite massively into Todd’s story. Also, the Spackle are painfully underutilized, there’s nothing distinctive about the production design, and Ridley is stuck in a terrible blonde wig for several scenes (blame those reshoots). Even so, Liman and co do nothing egregiously criminal here. They just don’t do anything outstandingly memorable either. And while praise has to be heaped on the filmmakers for turning in a film that is miraculously competent given its background and its complex-to-visualize idea, passing-grade competency does not make for captivating entertainment.
Not even the film’s main two antagonists, played by powerhouses like Mikkelsen and Oyelowo, get to chew the type of scenery we know they can. Oyelowo is confined to just shouting wide-eyed doomsday scripture from the back of a horse, while the most remarkable thing about Mikkelsen’s performance is the fabulously luxurious fur coat he wears. Almost everything is just so… tepidly okay!
Chaos Walking’s script – its core concept – is essentially an essay on toxic masculinity. As we learn from the film’s opening on-screen explanation, “The Noise is a man unfiltered, and without a filter, a man is just chaos walking,” and it’s in exploring this analogy where Liman and his string of writers do their best work. However, even here – like so many other aspects – you feel like they could have dug much deeper to get a reaction out of the audience instead of playing it a little safe. As a result, there’s a big part of me that would have loved to view that “unreleasable” original cut of this film, no matter how much a disaster it was. At least I would have had stronger, more memorable feelings after walking out of that chaos.
Last Updated: March 10, 2021