Review: For better or worse, ‘Chaos Walking’ crushes the possibility of a sci-fi franchise
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If you think men are annoying in our world, wait till you get a load of them on the planet New World in “Chaos Walking,” the once highly anticipated prospective tentpole starring Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley. Based on the award-winning young-adult science fiction series by Patrick Ness — specifically the first novel, “The Knife of Never Letting Go” — the movie has taken nearly a decade to reach the screen after being announced by Lionsgate in 2011. To say expectations have waned would be an understatement.
The studio, looking to continue its success with franchises such as “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games,” went through numerous writers, including, ahem, Charlie Kaufman (Ness and Christopher Ford receive final credit), and potential directors before starting production in 2017 with Doug Liman behind the camera. Reshoots, overseen by Fede Alvarez because Liman was unavailable, were pushed until 2019 due to the stars’ schedules, further delaying the release, which was again postponed as a result of COVID-19.
That’s a lot of baggage for one movie to bear yet “Chaos Walking” is neither the disaster one might fear nor the thrilling hoped-for first installment of a would-be trilogy. The pairing of Marvel and “Star Wars” royalty in the respective forms of Holland and Ridley necessitated an aging up of their teenage characters from the books to full-fledged young adults whose sheltered upbringings grant them a form of innocence. The many hands on the story also yield a broad narrative divergence from the source material.
The year is AD 2257 and New World, a 64-year journey from the settlers’ home planet, Earth, represents a colonization opportunity gone wrong. Similar to Earth in many ways, the beautifully dystopian planet features breathable air, drinkable water, lush forests and perpetual daylight. Unfortunately, it is also home to an unwelcome native species, the Spackle or Spacks, and its atmosphere has a disorienting effect on males, wherein their every thought is broadcast aloud to others.
The Noise, as the phenomenon is called, is defined as “a man’s thoughts unfiltered, and without a filter a man is just … Chaos Walking”; it takes the visual form of a lighted vapor that follows each man as a sort of personalized Aurora Borealis. In addition to laying bare their souls and any stray thoughts to one another, it bombards them with a cacophony of sounds that makes them neurotic, to put it mildly. Women, unaffected by the affliction, were slaughtered years earlier in a war with the Spackle, or so the legend goes.
Now, the all-male settlement of Prentisstown is ruled by Mayor Prentiss, played with quiet menace by Mads Mikkelsen. Prentiss has the ability to control his Noise with Force-like mastery, bending his survivalist followers to his will with a simple mantra: “I am the circle; the circle is me.”
Holland’s Todd Hewitt, orphaned as a baby and on the cusp of manhood, is the youngest male in the town and bears both the hope and burden that comes with that. Aside from his adoptive fathers, Ben (Demián Bichir) and Cillian (Kurt Sutter), and Prentiss, who has an uncharacteristic fondness for the boy, everyone is essentially his bully; Aaron (David Oyelowo), the town’s preacher, whose Noise has its own fire-and-brimstone aura, is especially abusive.
Meanwhile, hurtling toward New World is a scout module from a giant spaceship carrying the long-delayed 4,000-strong second wave of settlers. When the capsule crash-lands, the lone survivor, Viola (Ridley), is thrust into this hostile environment, where she is discovered by Todd, who is both curious and protective of her.
Todd’s inability to control his Noise quickly reveals Viola’s presence, and Prentiss displays a disturbing intent to prevent her from contacting her people on the mothership, representing them as an existential threat to his faithful. Encouraged to flee by Ben and Cillian, Todd forms an uneasy alliance with Viola as the pair are pursued into the wilderness by Prentiss and his men, including his doltish son, Davey Prentiss Jr. (Nick Jonas).
The introduction of a young woman into this scenario raises all sorts of questions about gender, misogyny, sexuality and procreation, most of which the movie seems relatively uninterested in asking, let alone answering. Likewise, the fairly obvious allegory for colonization goes largely unexplored.
Liman, who has a reputation for reviving troubled productions and salvaging films in postproduction, excavates an hour and 48 minutes of relatively engaging action-thriller material. It moves quickly enough to gloss over plot holes but leaves the impression that the novel was stripped for parts. The ending provides both a modicum of catharsis-free resolution and the unlikely-to-be-fulfilled promise of sequels. (I know, I know, “The food is terrible — and such small portions.”)
The stars don’t fare too badly, as their innate appeal remains intact. Holland’s conflicted man-boy dealing with a meta-power isn’t far removed from Peter Parker, but he’s really good at it. Ridley’s Viola is strong, confident and capable and the actor’s winsomeness is occasionally allowed to break through. The duo share a spark or two but the relationship is never allowed to roam anywhere near the boundaries of the film’s PG-13 rating; sexual tension is kept well below simmer. The stellar supporting cast, especially Mikkelsen and Cynthia Erivo in a role that demands more attention from one of those doubtful sequels, also goes a long way toward the movie’s watchability.
Conceptually, the Noise is “Chaos Walking’s” inventive strength, a fitting analogy for the information overload of our modern age, especially for young people. But introverts and those traumatized by overloaded Zoom calls will recognize as well as recoil from the audio assault it unleashes. It captures that feeling of sensory overwhelm but it likewise shuts out one’s abilities to process other things. And while Liman and visual effects supervisor Matt Johnson found a suitably cinematic way to put it onscreen, the cacophony of voices has a detrimental effect on the rushed storytelling, particularly in the way it undermines character and diminishes subtext.
We are only left to wonder what Kaufman might have made of all this.
Rated: PG-13, for violence and language
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: Starts March 5, Paramount Drive-in, Paramount; Mission Tiki Drive-in, Montclair; Van Buren Drive-in, Riverside; Rubidoux Drive-in, Riverside; and in general release where theaters are open
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