There are fascinating stories to be told about how the bestselling YA adventure The Knife of Letting Go mutated into much-delayed big screen misstep Chaos Walking. There’s an original script by Charlie Kaufman, umpteen drafts from a string of other writers soon after, a bloated $100m budget, reshoots from a different director and a hot young cast who aged quickly as the film spent over three years in the edit. Tales of strife and struggle, all of which would be more compelling than the final film itself, a delayed, mostly drab, attempt to cash in on the post-Hunger Games thirst to watch dystopian tales of attractive yet grubby young people rallying against the system.
It’s a film that should have been a major disaster but ends up being just a minor one instead, watchable enough in parts, with the lowest of expectations, but not enough to warrant the time and money that’s been funnelled into it. The biggest problem that the director Doug Liman (no stranger to tortured productions or cursed pandemic movies) has is trying to visualise the main conceit from Patrick Ness’s novel, a tricky idea that might have worked on page but on the big screen, it’s dead on arrival. In the nearish future, a community of men live as part of the New World, left to their own devices after all of the women were killed by the Spackle, a race of malevolent aliens. Each man is followed by his own “noise”, a mist of thoughts and fears that must be controlled or will reveal their innermost secrets to those around.
Local boy Todd (Tom Holland) struggles to do this, to maintain his privacy, a problem that gets out of hand when a crash landing leaves a young woman in his sights. Viola (Daisy Ridley) is immediately seen as a threat by the men as women don’t have the same noise surrounding them and she is soon targeted by the town’s flamboyant, and ferocious, mayor, David (Mads Mikkelsen having some sneery fun). Forced to flee, Todd decides to join her as they make their way over unknown terrain, finding out that the truths they held dear might not be true at all.
There are many things that slightly miss the mark here, from the underwritten huh-who-what-why characters to the under-explained specifics of the world around them, but nothing is quite as jarringly off target as the visualised streams of consciousness, confusing throughout, ugly at times and when a crowd of men are thinking at once, extremely annoying. Closely resembling the look of the shimmer from Alex Garland’s adaptation of Annihilation, it’s an ungainly blue and purple maelstrom of faces, words and ideas that’s so astoundingly misbegotten that it crushes the film from the start. It’s not necessarily Liman’s fault per se – I’d be hard-pressed to figure out how anyone could have made it work – but it’s a niggling problem that affects almost every scene and, along with many other elements, ensures that this franchise won’t stretch past its first chapter.
There’s such darkness to the set-up but the film avoids confronting difficult questions and Liman hopes we might stop asking them if there’s enough running and jumping to distract us. For that, Holland and Ridley are solid enough, both comfortable within physically active franchise fodder by now, but they’re left undernourished by a script that never bothers to give either of them the vaguest of characterisation and so a dynamic between the pair never really materialises. The exhaustingly redrafted script means that there are characters who come and go, embodied by talented actors, but who don’t make enough sense, leaving one tempted to check Ness’s source material for clarity (David Oyelowo’s fiery preacher is a particular casualty). The lush green world is pretty to look at and there’s an expensive scope to the film but too much of the styling is YA Dystopia 101 and so it never feels like anything we haven’t seen before.
The scrappy final act is made even scrappier when you see how much older Holland and Ridley look in the clearly reshot scenes (Liman worked with the Don’t Breathe director Fede Álvarez on these) and the epilogue, shot almost two years after the rest of the film, is an almost comically clumsy way to close out one of the pandemic’s clumsiest offerings. Chaos Lumbering would be more fitting.