‘Chaos Walking‘ Review: Too Much Walking, Not Enough Chaos
There is no such thing as “think before you speak” on New World. The colonized planet, years from Earth even by advanced future spaceships, makes every man’s innermost thoughts audible; the inhabitants call these perceptible thoughts “The Noise.” A few of the most powerful leaders of New World, like Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen), can control their Noise, and even use it as a clever weapon. The rest spend their lives at the mercy of their subconscious, trying in vain not to expose all of their deepest and darkest desires. Imagine if your friends or significant other could hear everything you thought. Although Chaos Walking isn’t a horror film, the premise alone is one of the most terrifying scenarios imaginable.
The Noise of New World is the sort of premise that great sci-fi movies are made out of — and that lesser sci-fi movies waste in the service of generic action and chase sequences. Chaos Walking lands somewhere in the middle of the two. Its early scenes establish one particular New World settlement called Prentisstown and show how a teenager named Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland) struggles to control his Noise. They tease out the mystery of how these settlers got there, what happened to the native population, and why their town consists entirely of grown men.
Then a woman literally falls out of the sky. She is Viola, played by Daisy Ridley. Because she is a woman, she has no Noise — for some reason New World’s environment only affects males. So Viola can hear Todd and the rest of the men’s thoughts, but they can’t hear hers. Her arrival changes the power dynamics in the little village, and threatens to expose Prentisstown’s buried secrets.
So far so good. Todd’s inner monologue keeps slipping out, getting him into trouble with his father (Demián Bichir) and the Mayor. Then Viola and Todd need to go on the run in order to acquire some all-important MacGuffin, and the movie becomes a lot less chaos and a lot more walking. Todd and Viola wander the landscape as they stay a step ahead of the forces who want to capture them and claim the MacGuffin for themselves. The pair get to share a few brief conversations about their lives and dreams, but the longer the movie goes, the less time gets spent on the peculiarities of New World, and the more focus gets placed on bland action.
This seems like a colossal waste of Chaos Walking’s concept. Why go to the trouble of inventing and designing this planet where everyone becomes an unwitting telepath only to use it as the setting for the kinds of shootouts and chases that you see in every Earthbound action movie? Chaos Walking’s script is credited to Christopher Ford and Patrick Ness, who also wrote the series of young adult novels that serve as its source material. Without reading Ness’ books, I’m going to assume they don’t briefly consider and then totally abandon the philosophical and metaphorical implications of The Noise the way Chaos Walking does.
Some of the generic bombast could be credited to director Doug Liman, who has made great science-fiction movies (Edge of Tomorrow) and lackluster ones (Jumper), but never made one that wasn’t also a non-stop rollercoaster action movie. In sci-fi mode, Liman has a tendency to emphasize spectacle over everything else, an approach that doesn’t entirely work for a heady concept like Chaos Walking. Here is a story about people who think out loud, and the movie around them gets so busy and noisy we can’t hear ourselves think a lot of the time.
The production of Chaos Walking famously dragged on for years. Most of it was shot in the summer of 2017; almost two years later, the cast and crew reassembled to film new scenes, with director Fede Alvarez pitching in during reshoots. Does the tension between Chaos Walking’s more brainy sci-fi elements and bursts of violence stem from the two totally different productions? Did two directors give different parts of the film totally different feels? I don’t know — but I do know that the finished movie is disjointed.
That doesn’t mean it’s entirely bad, though. If anything, it’s too good for its own good. Chaos Walking isn’t the sort of disaster that inspires so-bad-its-good appreciation, and it’s not quite interesting enough to become a genuine cult object. It’s more of a noble misfire. And I would love to hear its creators’ thoughts on why they made certain choices.
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