by Philip Price
Director: Doug Liman
Starring: Tom Holland, Daisy Ridley & Demian Bichir
Runtime: 1 hour & 50 minutes
A fascinating miscalculation if nothing else, “Chaos Walking” is a string of ideas in search of meaning. Having never heard of The Knife of Letting Go by Patrick Ness, the first in a trilogy of books that is known overall as Chaos Walking the most notable first reaction to this adaptation was that despite having a reliable captain in Doug Liman (“Edge of Tomorrow”) the film itself largely lacks a sense of direction. Of course, this might have something to do with the troubled production given the film was originally shot in 2017, but after what were reported to be poor test screenings of the initial cut, Lionsgate brought in a different director, Fede Alvarez (“Don’t Breathe”), for extensive and costly reshoots in 2019 before the pandemic delayed the release further. Though the film doesn't inspire enough curiosity for me to rally film twitter to initiate the #ReleaseTheLimanCut movement it does stand as a curious case of what might have been given Ness' material (he authored the series as well as co-wrote the screenplay with Christopher Ford) offers a number of possible interpretations, opportunities, and ideas that no one can blame neither Lionsgate (who acquired the rights to the book in 2011) nor Liman for wanting to pursue. That said, for a visual medium such as film to realize a concept that includes what is referred to as "the Noise" where every character on screen can hear every male character's thoughts there needs to be a certain level of credibility and innovation to its execution, but unfortunately this balance is never struck...or maybe it was never found in the first place. It's difficult to imagine what it must have been like to work in the sound department on a project such as this where there seems no good option in matching what is essentially Tom Holland doing Dustin Hoffman a la “Rain Man” in an attempt to verbalize streams of consciousness to different colored clouds of smoke that pulse like heartbeats around the men's heads. Manifesting this concept was undoubtedly a challenge, but it doesn't help that this concept is largely the key to making the film work as a whole and when it doesn't land - when we're not convinced of said manifestation in the first five minutes - then it's a problem. It also doesn't help that this key element was to be largely finalized in post-production allowing for little wiggle room in the experimentation of bringing the concept to life. Stream of consciousness thinking is confusing, often contradictory, and always messy, so how was anyone expected to organize this into something coherent much less consistently compelling in such a fashion that it could support an entire narrative based around a dystopian world where the women are gone and the men are literally left with only their thoughts? I have no idea either, but if anyone does, they should contact “Chaos Walking.”
It was in the opening seconds of the film though, if I'm being honest, that the first chuckles were induced as text appeared on the screen stating, "The noise is a man's thoughts unfiltered, and without a filter a man is just (text pauses for dramatic effect) ...’Chaos Walking.’" Of course, the top text then fades revealing only the title which, as I read it in the tone of a cheesy, eighties action voiceover guy, made me secretly hope that might end up being what Liman was going for. They even go so far as to attribute this quote to what is referred to as an "unknown new world settler" which made me laugh even harder and put real stock in the idea we might be getting a fair amount of camp in what otherwise seemed to be a serious little sci-fi flick. Unfortunately, those dreams were quickly dashed and the previous expectations confirmed as the aesthetic is immediately reminiscent of Lionsgate's ‘Divergent’ movies which is also fitting seeing as this was, at one point in time, likely positioned to be the studios next bid at a ‘Hunger Games’-like franchise given those ‘Divergent’ films never took off as anticipated. Set on what is simply referred to as a "New World" in 2257 A.D. humans have presumably fled Earth, though we're not sure what happened there, with the few survivors that made it to this new planet having built a small colony in which only the men have survived. All of the women have either died or disappeared and as soon as they enter the planet's atmosphere all men are afflicted with that aforementioned “Noise”.
Several characters and plot threads are introduced quickly thereafter including David Oyelowo as a preacher (who we come to find out is rather radical) which even Holland's Todd comments on as feeling unnecessary in this new world. In what is a display of zero restraint and a gigantic lack of subtlety Oyelowo's preacher comments on Todd's "truth" of being an orphan reducing him to words like "unwanted" and "weak" which he then likens to the qualities of a woman. It's a strange take from someone we initially assume is meant to uphold the likes of righteousness and modesty, but as can be derived from his attire this new colony on this new planet is very much intent on repeating the past, creating a full circle from one civilization to the next where nothing has been learned from history's mistakes and power is still the ultimate prize. Next, there are speedy introductions to the likes of Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen) and his son, Davy (Nick Jonas), who...get this...live in what they have decided to name "Prentisstown". There is also no hint of irony or self-awareness in this decision. Then there are Todd's caretakers in Ben (Demián Bichir) and Cillian (Kurt Sutter) who play the roles of the reserved, but well-meaning men (confirming there are some left) who remain on their farm and work hard day in and day out. Their mission of late becoming that of keeping Todd in line with their compassionate and humble state by way of distancing him from the Mayor who it becomes evident has his claws in Todd and is attempting to bring the youngest of the colony into the fold of his own philosophy.
It is this idea of Holland’s character being the youngest person in the colony, that there are no more women to bear any further children, and that he is in fact the end of the line as far as we can tell that offers the first bit of real intrigue to the narrative. The questions begin to arise, "what is the Mayor's end-goal here?" The suspicions begin to mount, "why does the Mayor feel lessons of taming and controlling things are of the upmost importance?" It's not difficult to see where this is going and motivations are only made more obvious when Todd encounters Daisy Ridley’s Viola who has crash landed on the planet, becoming not only the first woman Todd has ever seen but the first human on the planet in a long time not affected by “the Noise.” Viola then obviously becomes the next piece of intrigue as questions quickly abound not necessarily as to why women don't have "the Noise" and men do, but more around how many generations have the current settlers on this new world been there, how long have they been expecting this second wave of people from Earth, and of course - how have things devolved so quickly? Prentisstown's entire existence is predicated on isolating themselves from what is a native species to the planet that the Mayor accuses of having killed all the women, but who has also seemed to implement the line of thought on his son, Todd, and all the other younger, impressionable men of his town that women cannot be trusted. This all naturally coming to light after the arrival of Ridley's character therefore setting, she and Todd on a journey to outrun the Mayor and find a different colony known as Farmbranch where Viola hopes she can contact her ship. The second act of the film drains much of the energy established in the first as this is where the bulk of the building of the relationship between Todd and Viola is naturally designated. Regarding this, if one wants to defy convention and not make the relationship between their leads romantic that's fine, but don't keep reminding us of how that's not going to happen or at the very least, show us with looks - Ridley and Holland are certainly capable of as much - rather than writing dialogue to flat-out say so. This also lends to the film somewhat making Todd's dog, Manchee, the emotional core which, again, is fine if that's what you're going to do, but at least do something substantial with it rather than resorting to such tactics only to elicit some type of emotional reaction to the material.
We now take a break from our regularly scheduled review for another chuckle-inducing moment courtesy of “Chaos Walking.” When initially on the run from the Mayor and his goons Viola is on a dirt bike of sorts while Todd rides a horse. Both Todd and Viola ultimately go over the edge of a cliff as they are unable to see too far in front of them in the heavily-wooded area and can't stop in time, but I honestly can't tell you which is funnier - Ridley flying off a bike or Holland trying not to get crushed by the horse as they fall, but - OK, yes, it's the horse. Neither of these fragile humans would stand a chance of surviving this fall yet not only do they survive, but neither of them seemingly sustains any injuries. On top of that, this is only the beginning of their journey after which they trek across God knows how many miles on foot unaffected and largely unbruised outside of a few grunts and groans. The horse, unfortunately, is not so lucky.
On the opposite side of the “Chaos Walking” coin though, meaning when we're offered more ideological intrigue and less reckless action, there is plenty to be enchanted with if not only making audiences wish the final product had in fact been carried out better. The moments when Ridley and Holland's charisma are put to good use are in the quieter moments of considering their presence on this planet, how rain is colder than Viola - someone who had spent her entire life on a spaceship up until this point, whose grandparents had taken their children on this journey in search of something better - anticipated it to be. A moment in which Viola reads to Todd from his deceased mother's journal knowing both of them share a similar pain is understandably touching and more enlightening than any other sequence in the entire film, but the pros inevitably outweigh the cons in regard to execution. There is a moment featuring the native species on the planet that hints at them not being as wicked as Mayor Prentiss indicated, but we never hear more about them and in addition, the character design is strikingly bland. There is also the whole case of Farmbranch where Cynthia Erivo leads what is a more well-rounded colony, but where we find little in the way of answers to the bigger questions the film has posed - the actions of these opposed settlements hardly allowing the audience to discern much outside of what is fed them directly. Much like Prentisstown and unlike the native species though, Farmbranch is well realized with what appear to be carefully considered layouts and designs for each, this extending to the weapons and gadgets Viola brings with her to the planet as well. And while the aesthetic does mirror that of Lionsgate's other attempted young adult franchises it was shot by blockbuster veteran Ben Seresin (“Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”) who captures the actual locations of Scotland and Iceland in all of their sweeping glory.
Much of the shortcomings of the film come down to that aimless execution. Though strapped with all the tools he is accustomed to having at his disposal (he has Mads Mikkelsen looking at devious as ever for Christ's sake!) it still seems Liman is, for one reason or another, unable to inject any real momentum, enthusiasm, or stakes that the viewer will care about into this adaptation from word to motion. A prime example of this comes when Todd uses "the Noise" to display what are almost Green Lantern-like powers where he thinks of a snake and then projects that thought toward Davy in order to intimidate him. The Mayor repeats this technique some scenes later in order to trap Viola by placing a fence around her. Therefore, "the Noise" is not just a fallible side effect of this planet, but in these instances, we realize it can be utilized as a type of defense, as a weapon, as a way of literally visualizing your wants or needs. It is this new development, this different facet that adds to the execution of "the Noise" that could have helped enhance the credibility of the gimmick, but instead is used so sparingly that it may only come off as confusing to audiences only half-invested in the story...which is an easy thing to be.
One last chuckle-inducing moment before heading out though: Nick Jonas delivers the line, "Better watch your noise!" as if to say, "Better watch your mouth!" in what is intended to be a threatening manner toward Todd and all I'm saying is try not to have a drink in your mouth when that moment arrives.