The YA film has no intention of dying anytime soon. It may have slowed its roll in recent years, but because the publishing industry still relies heavily on young adult fiction (and let’s be frank, it’s where the bulk of genre creativity is being discovered right now), Hollywood hasn’t given up quite yet on finding the next Hunger Games or Harry Potter or, shoot, why not The Maze Runner?
The main appeal, then, of Chaos Walking is its high-concept hook and intriguing sci-fi-western setting, based on the “Chaos Walking” trilogy of books by Patrick Ness, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Christopher Ford. The film, which is based on the first book titled The Knife of Never Letting Go, opens with a young and hungry space colonist named Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland), who lives on a strange, alien planet where his thoughts constantly escape out of his head in the form visible, ultraviolet soundwaves that anyone can hear. Dubbed the “Noise,” as we should expect from a YA film like this, it applies to almost everyone on the planet. And its existence means that only the strongest minds can effectively control their inner Noise, hide their thoughts from others, and even produce memory-based illusions.
It’s quickly revealed, however, that the “Noise” is a phenomenon that only seems to occur with men. And wouldn’t you know it, Todd lives in a village only populated by men, and he’s never even met a “real” woman. Like a flesh and blood WALL-E completely unaware of the circumstances behind his own dystopia, a love interest soon arrives via spaceship. And Todd has no choice but to help Viola (Daisy Ridley) escape the clutches of the town’s “Noise whisperer” of a mayor (Mads Mikkelsen), an obsessed Noise zealot (David Oyelowo), and the mayor’s son, Davy (Nick Jonas), in a quiet, barely noticeable role clearly intended to make sense in the sequel that will probably never happen.
Chaos Walking has had a lot of trouble getting off the ground since practically the beginning of its lifespan. The film was acquired by Lionsgate nearly 10 years ago, back when YA stories were still reaching blockbuster heights at the box office. Which is why it made perfect sense at the time to cast Ridley and Holland, who were fresh off of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Captain America: Civil War respectively, back when they were cast for this project in 2016. The film was shot and wrapped by late 2017 with Doug Liman as director, but a series of bad test screenings pushed Lionsgate into green-lighting a month of reshoots. And due to Ridley and Holland’s busy schedules with their own Disney franchises, the reshoots didn’t even start until several months into 2019 and under the direction of Fede Álvarez.
Oh, and then there was a pandemic. So we’re only just now getting a wide release of the film at the beginning stages of theaters reopening across the U.S. So it would be easy to call Chaos Walking this year’s New Mutants, in the sense that its delayed production and awkward rollout certainly mimic the Fox film’s sense of cursed doom, which ultimately just turned out to be a passable, if not remarkable, B-movie most people will genuinely enjoy in the moment, then forget they saw it a few months later.
The film was clearly edited down to its bare bones, shaving its runtime to just 109 minutes (which includes 10 full minutes of credits). And there’s something almost surreal about seeing these young actors in a time capsule of a movie that was made right before their careers really blew up. Chaos Walking clearly favors the emotional journey of Todd, mainly because his every thought — and most of the film’s themes, naturally — get constantly blabbed to everyone, including the audience. Rather than allow for the film to hide his thoughts diagetically and let them be revealed through others’ reactions would have at least been more tolerable and subtle. But instead, every scene is fixated on Todd’s inability to reign in his curious, usually embarrassing thoughts, and Ridley is forced to play a reactionary companion all the way through, often going long stretches of the film without uttering a single word. It’s safe to say this film where everyone can hear almost everyone else’s thoughts has a bit of a communication problem.
The imbalance of Todd and Viola’s dynamic would probably work better in a film containing more spectacle and set pieces. But most of the runtime is spent in downtime, trekking through ordinary-looking forests that only sparkle with alien evidence on a few occasions — though one particular scene involving the gutting of a squid emblemizes Chaos Walking at its most enjoyably bonkers, and there really isn’t enough of this kind of energy. There are a few chase scenes that ironically don’t go anywhere, and one particularly tense scene involving rapids and violence against animals that will be sure to enrage many viewers.
That said, Chaos Walking is almost a bit charming in its basic, no-nonsense exercise through a what-if premise that probably worked much better on the page. It follows its own set of rules, standard as they may be, and never really strays into the dull territory that would make it more of a blank mess instead of a hot mess. Sure, it would’ve taken too much effort and unavailable funds to cut the film into something more standalone, rather than the obvious tease of a sequel that only exists in an alternative universe where these actors don’t know better. But as a clumsy, yet hearty teen flick about boys who can’t shut up and the girls who have to put up with it, Chaos Walking at least delivers on its own fittingly noisy premise.
Lionsgate will release Chaos Walking in select theaters on March 5.
Photos courtesy of Lionsgate