In the distant future, the first wave of humanity’s attempts to colonize the galaxy has gone horribly wrong. On this strange New World, there are no women, and all men have been afflicted by a mysterious force known as The Noise. Their every thought is broadcast to the world, something they can’t control or prevent. Todd Hewitt (played by Tom Holland), the youngest man in the settlement, spends his days trying to control his Noise and find his place in the world as a real man. That’s scuppered when a ship crash lands on their property and reveals the existence of a woman (Daisy Ridley.) She’s the first girl that Todd has ever seen, and she has no Noise.
It’s seldom a good sign when a film has been sitting on the shelf for as long as Chaos Walking has. Now premiering in North America over three years after its first round of shooting ended, Doug Liman’s adaptation of Patrick Ness’s acclaimed book series underwent extensive and well-documented reshoots (with Fede Álvarez directing them) following some terrible test screenings. Multiple screenwriters have cycled through the film, including Charlie Kaufman, and now Chaos Walking is dropping with limited hype. Lionsgate could not broadcast its status as a semi-abandoned movie any louder if they tried. It’s a shame because, mostly, Chaos Walking is pretty solid. Then again, with material this good, ‘pretty solid’ feels like one hell of a backhanded compliment.
In the aftermath of the gargantuan sales for Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, a slew of dystopian YA titles followed in its mighty shoes, just as the success of Twilight inspired a new era of teen paranormal romance. While some of these titles sold well, none of them lived up to the promise of Collins’s scathing satire, and the film adaptations that followed were a veritable assembly line of trite tropes and low stakes. (Remember Divergent?) Ness’s novels always felt like the outsider of the pack, a genre-blending and often deeply unnerving narrative with a unique premise, palpably real stakes, and true thematic heft. This is a story of the smothering cruelty of toxic masculinity and how its poisonous forces engulf worlds old and new. How do you escape from its all-encompassing grasp when it’s literally in your mind, denying you even your privacy?
So much of the hook of the first novel in the trilogy, The Knife of Never Letting Go, is in the intrigue of its mystery. Who is this woman? Why can’t Todd hear her every thought like he can with the men? And why is she here? Within the first 20 minutes of Chaos Walking, we know most of this. The woman can talk. We know where she came from, and we know why the bad guys want her. On a narrative level, it’s an understandable choice. On the page, Viola is a mystery to Todd and the reader. She’s a total enigma that represents not only the central mystery but the wider misogyny of the society he was raised in. That’s tough to translate for a teen movie. Plus, we’re all pretty sick of women being reduced to narrative tools. So here, Daisy Ridley gets way more to do. Her isolation is palpable.
Despite being the star of one of the most iconic film franchises of our generation, Ridley’s seldom been given much room to shine outside of her role as Rey. Chalk it up to limited script options or misguided project choices, but whatever the case, it’s not hard to see why she was drawn to this story. And she’s good as Viola. A resourceful woman trapped in the worst of circumstances, she is simultaneously ahead of and trailing behind the opposition. She’s a good partner for Tom Holland too, another sparky and earnest on-screen presence who has proven tough to cast outside of his work as Peter Parker (hi, Cherry.) Both actors are so fresh-faced and free in their physicality that the more tiresome aspects of the set-up feel somewhat natural in their hands. Holland’s got the tough job of having his thoughts verbalized constantly — or, at least as frequently as the story requires — and he keeps potentially cringey moments, like his obvious teen boy fascination with Viola, casual.
And then there’s the villain. Of course, Mads Mikkelsen is the bad guy here. He’s the self-styled Mayor of the settlement who dresses like a frontier trapper who pimps on the side. It’s spot-on casting as fans of the book will tell you, even if he’s happily settled into his cozy niche as ‘European villain.’ He’s got the right level of charm and sleaze for a character who is basically a politician. But this is also a movie that expects you to believe that his son is Nick Jonas. (No offense to Jonas, who is actually pretty good as the snotty jock of the settlement, but genetics aren’t that fantastical!)
The novel is savvy in its eschewing of the predictable. Stories of this kind, the ones where a lone woman must survive in a man’s world, are ten a penny in speculative fiction. Ness smartly keeps the focus on how the brutality of unfettered masculinity hurts men as much as women. On-screen, however, it becomes more obvious. Viola is still an enigma but not in the way that the book made such smart use of. Aside from a cheeky moment where the gaze of the camera focuses on Holland’s nude form rather than Ridley, this trope is all too often an excuse to leer at women. Thankfully Liman avoids this, but the formula is otherwise followed almost beat for beat. All of the weird and mind-bending moments of the novels are absent. The heavier ideas are flattened down into something more palatable but way less intriguing, including the themes of colonization and technological overreach. The deftness of the novels is distilled into a bunch of high-concept “What If?” scenarios.
That’s not to say that Chaos Walking is wholly devoid of entertainment or intrigue. The stylistic blend of past and future is aesthetically interesting, a kind of Old West by way of retro science-fiction. The ensemble cast is enviable in terms of talent, from David Oyelowo as an insidious preacher to Demián Bichir and Kurt Sutter as Todd’s folksy dads (and yes, they are queer coded, albeit barely.) There are clearly hints of something more ambitious beneath the surface with Chaos Walking. The novel’s prickliness shines through in moments, such as the brief encounters with the native aliens of this planet. (They’re a bigger deal in later books.) The tricky unreliability of memory is visualized here in a unique way, a sign of the source material’s depths. Ironically, the film succeeds in its quietest moments, when Holland’s talents aren’t engulfed by the Noise and he can simply be. Liman does his best with this set-up. The story doesn’t exist without it, but it’s also inherently a narrative gimmick ill suited to cinema, and the film can only do so much with it before it outstays its welcome. The sound is layered until it becomes just noise on top of noise, which will overwhelm viewers and detract from the story. If only it were allowed to be as piercing and discomfiting as it is in the book.
Chaos Walking is not the disaster that Lionsgate may have thought it would be, and it’s never going to be a contender for Worst YA Adaptation, not in a world where we have about 18 Divergent movies and Artemis Fowl. Its biggest crime is its timidity, the age-old practice of the Hollywoodization of source material that is anything but safe. The end result is so cliched that you can’t help but be disappointed by the lost potential.
Chaos Walking opens in theaters on March 5.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review of a theatrical release is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. This film was reviewed via a screening link.
Header Image Source: Lionsgate