A film review by Craig J. Koban May 5, 2021

CHAOS WALKING ˝j
 

2021, PG-13, 109 mins.

Daisy Ridley as Viola Eade  /  Tom Holland as Todd Hewitt  /  Mads Mikkelsen as Mayor David Prentiss  /  Demián Bichir as Ben Moore  /  Cynthia Erivo as Hildy  /  Nick Jonas as Davy Prentiss Jr.  /  David Oyelowo as Aaron  /  Kurt Sutter as Cillian Boyd  /  Mylčne Dinh-Robic as Julie

Directed by Doug Liman  /  Written by Christopher Ford and Patrick Ness, based on the novel THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO by Ness

CHAOS WALKING is a colossally wrongheaded and bewilderingly awful sci-fi thriller that kind of has to be seen - make that endured ­- to be believed.  

Beyond wasting the established talents of stars Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley and containing absolutely D.O.A. world building, this film is proof positive that a novel's premise - no matter how intriguing - can indeed still translate horribly to the silver screen and simply not work...at all.  Worst of all is that CHAOS WALKING cost an inexcusable $100 million and was typified by multiple problematic reshoots and release delays (more on that in a bit), not to mention that it was helmed by the usually confident and solid Doug Liman, who previously made one of the most underrated high concept sci-fi action thrillers of recent memory in THE EDGE OF TOMORROW.  

What a shame.  

What a major shame. 

Where do I even begin with this film?  CHAOS WALKING is based on the sci-fi trilogy of novels by Patrick Ness (who also adapted the screenplay here with Christopher Ford) and contains, as alluded to, an interesting hook: It's set in the distant future and portrays an alien planet (that looks a lot like any rural area of Earth) that's only populated by men.  All of the men are capable of hearing and seeing each other's thoughts in a constant (and I do mean constant) stream of words, images, sounds, memories, etc. that are collectively referred to as "The Noise."  If you don't want your "Noise" read by your neighbor then you must condition it to the point where it becomes unreadable.  

Now, all of this sounds compelling enough, and in novels (and comic books, for that matter) this is a great device for getting into the mindset of characters at any given moment.  Movies work differently, though.  Sometimes, silence in scenes can speak volumes.  In CHAOS WALKING - and within the first few information overload minutes - viewers are inundated with seeing a never-ending slew of holographic, dream-like bubbles appearing over character's heads that shares their inner most thoughts.  At first, it looks cool enough, but very shortly it becomes visually and dramatically distracting...and it never ends.  It just keeps going on...all...the...time.  Before the first act of CHAOS WALKING was over I was ready to frankly tap out of this film.  The Noise simply becomes insufferable to look and experience.  It's akin to visual diarrhea.  Some films telegraph what its main leads think, whereas this one bludgeons you over the head with the subtlety of a flying chair shot to the cranium.   

But wait!  What if a lone woman is thrown into the mix...and her "Noise" isn't broadcast to the masses?   

 

 

I'm sure this leads to you asking one question: What happened to all of this planet's women?  Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself here.  Let's talk about more establishing particulars.  This alien world of the mid-23rd Century was colonized by humans, but only after they got rid of the natives of the planet known as "The Spackle."  Spoken legend has it that this indigenous population killed all of the settler women during their war with the new colonials.  In the future present we meet a farmer (Demian Bichir) and his teenage son, Todd (Holland), both of whom spend their days tending to their crops in the small village community of Prentisstown.  The mayor of the town is named David Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen), and it's probably not a good sign that the town is named after its leader.  Anyhoo', Prentiss has built a new religion, of sorts, that emphasizes the virtues of hyper masculinity and one's ability to control their Noise.  Of course, the hero of the picture in Todd has a hard time controlling his Noise, whereas other denizens have learned to subvert it, in one form or another.  When a strange vessel crash-lands and Todd discovers that - gasp! - the lone survivor is a girl named Viola (Ridley), he realizes that the despotic rule of Prentiss will perceive her as a threat to the sausage fest cult that he has created.  Todd takes it upon himself to flee Prentisstown with Viola and far away from Prentiss' grasps, but the pair face a hostile and untamed wilderness that poses multiple threats of their own. 

With a horny teenager that has never seen a girl before in the flesh, Todd has some, shall we say, amusing problems caused by his inability to control his Noise, which is the source of some modest humor in CHAOS WALKING.  Imagine being sexually attracted to a young women and she can literally see your desires manifest above your head for all to watch.  Poor Todd's crush on this easy on the eyes newcomer becomes perpetually embarrassing for him, especially for how his Noise reveals to her how alluring he thinks she is and how much he'd like to kiss her at any waking moment.  Scenes like this would work better, though, if the screenplay (a) fleshed out these two characters more fully and (b) Holland and Ridley actually had some semblance of on-screen chemistry and charisma.  These are two limitlessly appealing performers that have the proven abilities to carry large scale tentpole blockbusters (Ridley was one of the more thanklessly decent elements of the creatively problematic STAR WARS sequel trilogy, and Holland himself made Spider-Man uniquely his own in his MCU appearances).  It's so ultimately disappointing to see actors like this that simply don't gel well at all and, more noticeably, don't seem like they want to even be in this film altogether.  If the actors don't care, then why should we? 

The villains of the piece fare no better.  Mikkelsen is one of our acting treasures, to be sure, and her certainly has the goods to hijack a film away from anyone as a well oiled bad guy, but his mayor antagonist here is pretty cookie cutter as far as frontier politicians that have turned to the dark side go.  Mikkelsen never manages to make this character a true figure of intimidating menace.  One of his henchmen is played by the equally gifted David Oyelowo, who has the ability to give off this scary red aura from around his body.  But his baddie, like Mikkelsen's, is all about superficial details and not much more.  Why cast two Oscar nominated actors of their caliber in terribly underwritten roles?  Maybe a lot of this has to do with the fact that CHAOS WALKING went through a highly troubled and publicized production.  It was announced in 2011 and shot two years ago and after a series of disastrous test screening reshoots were ordered, but could not be done for another two years because of Ridley's and Holland's respective STAR WARS and MCU commitments.  Liman didn't even commit himself to the reshoots, which were overlooked by Fede Alvarez and added nearly $20 million to an already ballooning budget.  Then the pandemic kicked in, and with a final nail in this film's coffin it was unceremoniously dumped to select cinemas and VOD this year.   

And, man, it shows. 

CHAOS WALKING is like the poster boy for the P.W.P. movie, of a movie containing a premise without a payoff.  I'm sure this film's premise worked on the printed page and Hollywood producers saw potential in yet another Young Adult property, but the execution here is so laughably uninspired that I felt that I had to constantly pinch myself to be reminded to care about anything that was transpiring here.  Maybe the reshoots and constant production/release delays buried a far better movie than what we ended up receiving here.  I like the idea of a low tech space frontier western set on another world, but there are simply so damn many ways that this sci-fi film could have delved into some thematically complex waters, but it never once felt equal to the task.  There's the notion of foreign settlers destroying the way of life of a native population that has tangible historical correlations.  There's also an infinite number of ways that the script could have tackled male/female power struggles in a society where female empowerment is a major frowned upon no-no.  Then there's the idea of religious cults propped up on principles of toxic masculinity that perceive women as the ultimate threat to a way of life.  I mean, I grow dizzy just thinking about how CHAOS WALKING could have been a thoughtful and contemplative sci-fi allegory on with multiple layers,  but the end results here are so fundamentally lazy and lacking in fertile commentary.  

Doug Liman has no business making a movie this bad.  Perhaps it got away from him via studio interference.  I dunno.  But after his dreadful pandemic themed romantic heist comedy from earlier this year in LOCKED DOWN and now this I'm starting to wonder.  When it boils right down to it, the core of CHAOS WALKING simply doesn't make for a good viewing experience.  The more Noise pollution (so to speak) that was thrown up on screen, the more I wanted to hit the mute button on my remote (I screened this via VOD versus unsafely journeying out to a cinema).  On the page, an author can relay a character's thoughts because it's a written medium that doesn't have the benefit of images.  In film, hearing every single solitary thought in the hero's mind manifesting itself for two hours does a disservice to these characters.  It leaves nothing to the imagination.  That, and The Noise apparitions are just ugly to look at and fatiguing to listen to.  CHAOS WALKING is a solemn cautionary reminder that having grade-A talent behind the camera and in front of it trying to adapt a series of acclaimed books can still result in one of the worst films of the year.  

At least that's what my Noise is saying. 

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