Apologies in advance for reminding you of its existence, but remember 2016’s Passengers? It was a much-ballyhooed science fiction “original” anchored by two massive franchise stars, and it pretty much stinks for multiple reasons including a tone-deaf narrative and a chemistry-free pairing at its center. That film inexplicably managed to make a few bucks in theaters despite this, but the similarly messy and top heavy new film from Doug Liman never stood that same chance. A sci-fi action/adventure “about” the sexes and headlined by stars from the two biggest film franchises in the world, Chaos Walking trips over its metaphorical dick so often you’d think it was a Ron Jeremy blooper reel.
It’s the year 2257, and Todd (Tom Holland) is living a simple life with his two dads on a farm outside the small, Appalachian-like community of Prentisstown. Humans had hoped to settle on this planet decades prior, but war with an indigenous species called the Spackle left their numbers decimated and all of the women deceased. Well, that’s the story passed down by Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen) and his enormous coat anyway, but the men have more on their mind than just the absence of females — and all of it is on display in a colorful, chatty swirl around their heads. Their every thought is made audible and visible in the air, and while a select handful have learned how to control it most carry “the noise” everywhere they go at all times. Into this bubbling pot of amateur incels drops Viola (Daisy Ridley), and soon all the men of Prentisstown are hunting for her with only Todd standing in their way.
Chaos Walking is an adaptation of the first book in a YA trilogy by Patrick Ness, but don’t hold your breath waiting for the other two to hit the screen — that won’t be happening. The real-world pandemic holds a big part of the blame, of course, but it’s difficult to imagine the film having been a big franchise starter under even the best of circumstances. While ostensibly science fiction, the bulk of its action (and inaction) unfolds in drab communities more at home in a western. A brief encounter with the Spackle intrigues, but the film seems far more interested in cliched human interactions and generic action beats. And not for nothing, but a budget like this should have resulted in far more memorable sci-fi visuals.
The “noise” around men’s heads is creatively captured through wispy hues and crafty sound design, but for all its technical marvel the concept fumbles its execution. The men try to cover their thoughts and feelings, the latter frequently derided as being too feminine, with mundane checklists and repetition. So far so good, but their thoughts never feel remotely like the real mental maelstrom swirling around in our minds at any given point. They’re never random or two-steps removed and instead always feel narrative inspired in their focus. Similarly, while the title Chaos Walking refers to the supposed chaos in a man’s head, laid out for all to see and hear, it’s a remarkably sanitized “chaos” on display. Not that anyone would want to hear the unfiltered vulgarities and lustful abuse running through these guys’ heads, but variations on “She has a high voice, it’s nice” and “Yellow hair, pretty” are far removed from believability.
That’s not to say that realism is (or should be) the goal of a sci-fi action film. It’s more a criticism of a script (by Ness and Christopher Ford) that kicks off with an admittedly intriguing premise before choosing not to pursue any of its more interesting ramifications. Chaos Walking also isn’t all that interested in offering explanations or answers — what caused this? why does it only affect human males? why did they use up so much of their space ship’s interior for horses? did that dog really have to die so viciously? — and while it teases some engaging topics they go nowhere. The relation of the sexes, the politics of colonization, and their perspective on the planet’s native species (Viola tells Todd that it’s people who are the aliens here) are all potentially fascinating avenues broached and then ignored.
Holland and Ridley are both reliably solid here, and while they’re lacking in real chemistry it’s somewhat by design as the far more mature Viola is anything but interested in Todd. Mikkelsen is a standout — surprise — with a severely underwritten dystopian villain who’s just a few rewrites away from being interesting on the page. Equally underwritten, but unable to recover, is David Oyelowo‘s evangelical Aaron. As it stands there’s just not enough room in the villain pool for both. Credit is due to Demian Bichir and Kurt Sutter as Todd’s guardians, though, as they manage to deliver the film’s only warmth and humanity.
The bulk of the film’s issues rest with a script that can’t quite decide how much of its story to share, and that carries over into Liman’s direction. He can do compelling, immensely entertaining genre fare as evidenced by Edge of Tomorrow (2014), but that gem had Christopher McQuarrie behind the typewriter. Rather than be a thrilling sci-fi adventure or an entertaining franchise starter, Chaos Walking manages far less. On the plus side, though, it’s a solid reminder that sometimes talented, successful people fail too.