It was more than three and a half years ago when cameras began rolling on Chaos Walking, the sci-fi adventure movie starring Tom Holland (Spider-Man: No Way Home) and Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker). It’s finally seeing the light of day this week. Although production wrapped in late 2017, this film ended up destined to run the same gauntlet that most movies helmed by director Doug Liman do: reshoots, re-edits and rethinking, all in service of cobbling together something that its studio, Lionsgate this time, could call “releasable.”
In the end, however, the behind-the-scenes story of the making of Chaos Walking is probably far more interesting than what was produced. Based on a novel called The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (the first in a trilogy), Chaos Walking is a bland, inert, and deadly dull affair that fails to translate its central concept to the screen. Instead it lays out a bunch of moral and narrative questions that go nowhere and assembles its contrived plot only to set up sequels that will almost certainly never see the light of day.
Holland plays Todd Hewitt, the youngest member of a colony of settlers on a planet dubbed New World. The settlers arrived there from an increasingly unlivable Earth decades earlier, only to discover that something in the planet’s atmosphere creates “the Noise,” a condition in which all the thoughts of males can be heard–and seen, sort of–by everyone else. Females are immune and their thoughts unreadable, which is a moot point anyway since all the women of the colony were killed off years ago in a brutal war with the planet’s native inhabitants, a species called the Spackle.
The first problem with the movie is the Noise itself, which is conceptualized as a kind of running stream-of-consciousness voiceover that confusingly fights for the viewer’s attention with the actual spoken dialogue. Its visual component is a colorful CG smoke that puffs around everyone’s heads like little clouds of the same dust that no doubt gathered around this picture as it sat on the shelf. In one unintentionally hilarious offshoot, an unhinged preacher played by David Oyelowo (who needs to fire his agent after this) manifests his Noise as literal bursts of fire and brimstone.
Todd, whose mother was among the Spackle casualties, does his best to control his Noise by inwardly repeating his name or phrases like “be a man” over and over again, a technique learned from his two daddies (Demian Bichir and Kurt Sutter) and their leader, Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen). The latter, in Trump-like fashion, has dubbed their settlement Prentisstown. Todd will need to exercise all the self-control he can muster around his mental chatter when he stumbles across Viola (Ridley), the only survivor of an advance scout team from a larger starship bearing a second, long-delayed wave of colonists.
For reasons left unclear, Prentiss sees the arrival of Viola and her starship as some kind of threat, especially since her thoughts are unreadable. At least some of the rest of the settlers view her in a more lascivious sense, which makes her position doubly dangerous. So it falls upon Todd to help her escape from Prentisstown and guide her to another colony called Farbranch, staying ahead of both Prentiss’ men and the Spackle while figuring out a way to contact Viola’s ship.
All of this is played out in such rote fashion, with dispirited work from what should on paper be a fine cast, that it just becomes (pardon the expression) a bunch of noise. But I was at least bored enough to ponder a series of questions.
Why, for example, is the arrival of a new ship seen as a menace when the colonists have clearly been struggling to survive? Why does Viola act nearly feral after she lands? Why does the planet look like the woods of Canada and Georgia (where it was filmed) with nary a suggestion that it’s a distant alien world? And even if the planet is meant to be exactly Earthlike, how did the Spackle–a clearly alien race–evolve and survive there? (We only meet one member of this race in Chaos Walking and its presence is rather pointless.)
The puzzlements pile up in what is clearly a sloppy, lazily written attempt at both world-building and romance-brewing. But Holland and Ridley have zero chemistry together, their characters are largely ciphers, and other aspects of life on the planet go unexplained or unexplored. The Noise seems to change depending on what the plot requires, with Prentiss and Todd seemingly able to manifest illusions Wanda Maximoff-style. Other potentially interesting threads are dropped: for example, it’s implied yet never directly addressed that Bichir and Sutter are a couple, but what that means for the larger body of men living together in Prentisstown without women for years is ignored entirely.
The trope of space colonists being left alone on a distant planet and rediscovered years later (or sometimes longer) is well-worn in sci-fi–Star Trek deployed it a number of times–and can still be the backdrop for a provocative story. But Chaos Walking instead settles for a standard chase and Y/A meet-cute, with even the expected reveals late in the story about what really happened to the women of Prentisstown both predictable and, at that point, utterly without impact.
Even the late arrival of Cynthia Erivo (The Outsider) in what should be a welcome appearance can’t enliven a movie that just sits on the screen with all the energy of a melting block of ice. But any help that she or the other cast members might provide for Liman (and Fede Alvarez, who reportedly directed an extensive series of reshoots) is not enough. Whether Ness’ novel was just too difficult to translate in cinematic terms, or whether the filmmakers just lacked the imagination to develop the story’s themes and setting in a way that made sense, Chaos Walking staggers out of the gate and never finds its footing.
Chaos Walking is out in theaters Friday, March 5.