Nominative determinism in Hollywood doesn’t get more blatant than Chaos Walking – a movie that seemed set for success, right up until it stumbled into a spiral of anarchy.
In 2011, Lionsgate picked up the rights to the buzzy YA series by Patrick Ness and hired idiosyncratic screenwriter Charlie Kaufman to adapt opening entry The Knife of Never Letting Go. Kaufman soon left, but the studio pushed ahead and managed to assemble a killer cast of Gen Z’s favourite people, headlined by Star Wars leading lady Daisy Ridley and Spider-Man actor Tom Holland. Ness himself joined writer Christopher Ford to pen the screenplay. By November 2017, the shoot was complete.
The omens couldn’t have been better. Then, the wheels came off.
A report by the Wall Street Journal suggested that director Doug Liman’s first cut of the movie was “unreleasable” and the studio subsequently ordered reshoots in early 2018. Naturally, Ridley and Holland’s franchise commitments made this a nightmare of logistics and it wasn’t until April 2019 – after the originally scheduled release date – that reshoots were completed, with the help of Evil Dead director Fede Alvarez.
But now, the movie is finally here, after additional delays as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic – and it’s a mess. The bones are those of a conventional YA film which would have passed by without comment in the age of The Hunger Games, but it’s the biggest misfire in that world since the Divergent franchise just decided to give up before its final movie. Chaos Walking seems to wave the white flag halfway through its first one.
The primary issue is with the central concept. We meet Holland’s teenage Todd growing up in a settlement on New World. There are no women – they were wiped out by life-forms who lived on the planet before – and the men are followed by ‘Noise’, which means their deepest and most intimate thoughts are audible to everyone. Only those who have learned to control their Noise, like Mads Mikkelsen’s suspicious Mayor Prentiss, are able to keep their secrets hidden.
Chaos Walking ran into difficulties amid the coronavirus crisis (Picture: Lionsgate)
Tom Holland stars in the sci-fi (Picture: Lionsgate)
It’s a concept that provides rich opportunities on the page, but creates headaches for anyone driving it to the big screen. The difficult combination of Noise and dialogue isn’t something Liman’s film is ever able to crack, leaving Holland’s performance consistently obscured by garbled din and a cloud of colourful but ugly VFX. The star is too charismatic not to be entertaining though, finding a likeable action man middle ground between the utterly pure Peter Parker and his grittier roles in recent films like The Devil All the Time and Cherry.
Ridley fares well too, playing second wave settler Viola, who crash-lands on New World and immediately becomes a target for Prentiss. He’s a fragile man with delusions of grandeur who will do anything to desperately maintain the status quo of his power. No real life parallels there, I’m sure.
The resulting film ends up being messy (Picture: Lionsgate)
The movie is a misfire (Picture: Lionsgate)
Mikkelsen is given a slightly meatier role than many of the other older cast members, with the always excellent Cynthia Erivo wasted on what amounts to more like a cameo and David Oyelowo saddled with a screeching caricature of a preacher. He spends most of his screen time ranting about sin and snarling at everybody from astride a horse. Oyelowo is a masterful actor, but this performance is very much where nuance goes to die.
Chaos Walking also suffers from the inherent difficulties of making a movie with two very in-demand young stars, and then asking them back for reshoots. Holland and Ridley had visibly aged by the time they came back to set, with the result being that many of these new scenes stick out like sore thumbs. In a movie that doesn’t exactly flow anyway, it’s jarring to see the characters confusingly leap about in age and appearance like Benjamin Button with a Tardis.
But it’s not all bad news. The chemistry between Holland and Ridley builds nicely despite its rather obvious YA trappings and there are a handful of memorable set pieces, including a chase through rampaging rapids in which a cardinal rule about cinematic animals is broken to shocking effect.
The overriding feeling though is one of disappointment. Arriving a decade too late to fully capture the YA boom, it’s a baffling, low-energy exercise in filmmaking by studio committee – less Chaos Walking and more Dead Man Walking.
Liman, then, could be forgiven for wanting a quieter life with his next project. Boldly, though, he’s agreed to blast off into space to make a movie in orbit with Tom Cruise. It seems his plan is not to run away, but to embrace the chaos.
Chaos Walking is set for release on on April 5 via video on demand.