Chaos Walking Synopsis: In the not-too-distant future, Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland) discovers Viola (Daisy Ridley), a mysterious girl who crash lands on his planet, where all the women have disappeared and the men are afflicted by “the Noise” – a force that puts all their thoughts on display. In this dangerous landscape, Viola’s life is threatened – and as Todd vows to protect her, he will have to discover his own inner power and unlock the planet’s dark secrets. Based on the Patrick Ness novel The Knife of Never Letting Go.
Some films can never escape their tumultuous pre-release narratives, with those hardships often defining what the patchwork final product ends up becoming. Lionsgate’s long-awaited blockbuster Chaos Walking has certainly endured some of these challenges. After being filmed nearly four years ago (featuring reshoots a few years back with a different director), the film is seeing the light of day after a series of unfortunate delays.
Collaborated on by a myriad of talents (Charlie Kaufman, John Lee Hancock, and author Patrick Ness all provided drafts of the screenplay), Chaos Walking presents some promise as a dystopian exploration of inequitable gender dynamics, religion and the suppression of individual beliefs in a collective society. While not without some earnest merits, this largely discombobulated effort feels every bit of its taped-together design.
I can see why Ness’ novel registered with audiences. High-concept science fiction stories like Chaos speak to societal quandaries in ways that are accessible and briskly entertaining. The idea of the “Noise” presents some thoughtful opportunities to dive into the human mind, particularly one that has been distorted by an environment of misinformation and toxic masculinity. An all-star cast helps propel this conceit forward, with Tom Holland and Daisey Ridley capably livening their relatively barebones roles. Mads Mikkelsen’s sinister conviction as a corrupt town leader registers some necessary tension, while the surprisingly deep supporting roster sells even the most bizarre of roles (Demain Bichir, Cynthia Erivo, and David Oyelowo make up the over-qualified cast).
Despite a promising foundation, Chaos Walking stumbles under the weight of its own pretenses. For a novel that batts around several thoughtful ideas, the film’s lackluster adaptation of these conceits drains the material of any substance. None of the thematic arcs have time to breathe across a relentless 109-minute runtime, as audiences can only grasp on to thinly-sketched shadings of what could have been. It doesn’t help that the characters are left in a thanklessly shallow condition. Holland and Ridley are rewarded little to work with as blandly-flavored do-gooders, leaving the two desperately trying to meld a sense of comradery that isn’t there on the page.
Similar to other notoriously troubled productions (Fantastic Four and After Earth), Chaos Walking never develops a succinct identity. There’s a clumsy clash onscreen between the film’s YA blockbuster aspirations and its more weighty concepts. You can see where the script tries to formulate itself into the popular YA formula (Hunger Games and Divergent), but that decision completely mitigates the nuances that made the novel work on the page. The film tries to marry both sensibilities into one without doing either identity justice in the process.
Even as a big-screen entertainment, Chaos Walking leaves something to be desired. Director Doug Liman has proven his adept ability in the action sphere (Edge of Tomorrow is one of the best blockbusters of recent memory), which makes his blasé delivery here a disappointment to see. Liman never finds a visually-arresting way to convey the “Noise” and its lingering impacts, settling on clouds of thought bubbles that lack creative artistry. The rest of the big-budget production registers with a relatively cheap aroma, as a series of generic action setpieces and poorly-graded images leaves nothing but a bitter aftertaste.
No artistic creation deserves to exist in a state of endless purgatory, so I am glad to see Chaos Walking finally hitting theaters. That being said, this incomplete and undefined franchise-starter gets nowhere close to its idealistic goals.
Chaos Walking debuts in theaters on March 5th.
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