Film Review: Chaos Walking
Director: Doug Liman
In Theaters 03.05
These days, to say a film has been awaiting release for a while now is something of a given, but Chaos Walking is a special case. It’s been hovering in an odd state of limbo since before it became fashionable, having been pulled from release in 2019 when poor reception from test audiences resulted in going back for reshoots and re-editing. Then it was supposed to arrive in theaters in March of 2020, and well, you know what happened.
Chaos Walking is based on young adult, dystopian science fiction novels by Patrick Ness (A Monster Calls). It takes place in an isolated colony on a planet called New World, in a place called Prentisstown, populated only by men. A native race of creatures called “The Spackle” killed off all of the women, possibly with the help of other creatures with equally frightening monikers like “Contact Paper” and “The Kitchen Tiles.” The men all developed a strange condition upon landing on the planet: the ability to read each other’s minds and hear each other’s thoughts in a stream of images, words and sounds called “the Noise, ” which basically forms a hazy, misty cloud emanating from everyone and leaves every man in Prentisstown looking like ‘Pigpen’ from Peanuts cartoons.
When Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Devil All The Time) discovers an area that is completely silent, he happens upon a girl, Viola (Daisy Ridley, The Star Wars Sequel Trilogy) who crashed-landed on the planet. When the Mayor (Mads Mikkelsen, Hannibal, Another Round) learns about Viola, her life is suddenly in danger, and Tom must flee, taking her to the nearest neighboring colony in hopes that she will be safe.
It’s hard to overstate how much Chaos Walking benefits from the immense likability of its two leads, who are among the most charismatic young stars working in film and have genuine chemistry together. It’s fair to say the movie wouldn’t work without them. In fact, I’ll go a step further and say it doesn’t even work with them. The bad news is everything else, from the total mess of a script to the “if it can’t be good, at least it can be short” approach to the final cut to the nearly incoherent storyline that has clearly been chopped up, reassembled in the dozen or so attempts at a script before the final, failed version that serves as a rough blueprint for the so-called “finished product.” There are plot holes and contradictions galore, and it ends up feeling a bid like a mashup of M. Night Shyamalan ideas, loosely and spuriously connected to each other.
Remarkably, Chaos Walking is slightly better than I expected it to be, if not as good as I’d hoped for. It’s just good-looking enough to be fairly easy to get through, with nice cinematography by Ben Seresin (Unstoppable, World War Z) and strong production design by Dan Weil (The Fifth Element, King Arthur).
Director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow, Locked Down) knows how to stage action and keep things moving briskly, but he’s working with some serious handicaps here. The movie is based on the first novel in the series, which does not resolve the storyline. When, exactly, the studio realized that they didn’t have a potential franchise with this is unclear, but they decided at some point to try to wrap everything up in one movie. There are so many promising elements that this could have been a compelling film, but if it was going to be one movie, it needed to be a long one that was carefully structured. I actually found myself wishing that Chaos Walking was more like The Postman more than once, which is pretty damning commentary if ever there was one.
Chaos Walking demonstrates that Ridley and Holland are top-flight performers with off-the-charts charisma, but that’s hardly news. It’s a disposable diversion at best, an embarrassing waste of time at worst, and primarily, it’s just a lot of vague, unfocused noise. –Patrick Gibbs