Ten years. Chaos Walking, Lionsgate’s adaptation of Patrick Ness’ young adult sci-fi novel The Knife of Never Letting Go, has made its way to screens after a decade-long gestation, finally arriving after the studio snapped up distribution rights for the project in 2011, after shooting started in 2017, after abysmal test screenings forced expensive reshoots in 2019, and after COVID-19 pushed its release from January 2021 to March. Admittedly the last of these isn’t a particularly large leap, and after so much energy invested in transitioning the story to a new medium, what’s another couple of months, anyways? Having waited this long, the movie’s audience should be able to wait a little longer.
The cruel part is that maybe they’d have been happier waiting longer, still: Chaos Walking is a shockingly flimsy enterprise, an hour and a half of wispy characters chasing each other through generic rugged woodlands, braving dangers both alien and human on their mission to find a functioning radio. This doesn’t do Chaos Walking’s logline justice, perhaps, but given its massive thematic potential, there’s little nestled within the narrative to hang onto. A cast stacked with Tom Holland, Daisy Ridley, Mads Mikkelsen, Demián Bichir, Cynthia Erivo and David Oyelowo should at least be compelling and watchable for performances alone. But Chaos Walking so eagerly hurries to nowhere that only a few have the chance to stand out in the morass.
Chaos Walking takes place on the New World, an Earthlike planet inhabited by extraterrestrial creatures called Spackle and, more specifically, within the limits of the frontier burg Prentisstown. Holland plays Todd, not only a boy of Prentisstown, but the last boy: Every woman in the (new) world is dead at the hands of Spackle, leaving the men behind to sort out their messes, a grim task made complicated by the presence of the Noise. Only men feel the effects of this affliction, which broadcasts their thoughts at all times if they’re not skilled in keeping their inner voice mum. Between that and the absence of a day/night cycle, Prentisstown’s men spend their days in perpetually foul moods. It’s a real drag, especially for a teen who’s never laid eyes on a girl in his life.
Then, out of the blue, one falls from the sky: Viola (Ridley), a young lady who has lived her whole life in space and only now been sent to the New World with a fresh round of terran settlers. Todd has no idea what to make of her, except that she’s pretty, and her hair is yellow, and he’s such a hormonal neurotic mess that he can’t shut his brain up, so she knows he thinks she’s pretty. Holland conveys this dynamic perfectly. He strikes a great dour face, but his inner monologue is punctuated with “aw, shucks, ah geez” chagrin, an escalating sense of embarrassment at his own mental impropriety. He’s hilarious. It’s these moments where Chaos Walking actually feels like it’s onto something, whether Todd is making a hormonal fool of himself or struggling with his own acculturated sense of what “being a man” means.
Viola watches and stares in fascination and bewilderment at seeing Todd’s every stray thought projected before her very eyes. She’s immune to the Noise: Todd can’t see her thoughts, and the one-way relationship sets him off kilter. At first she considers him a threat. His first response on finding her in the woods is to alert David (Mikkelsen), the mayor of Prentisstown, who, upon hearing that there’s an icky girl running around the New World, rounds up a posse to chase her down. So Todd abandons his fellow dudes and vows to protect her and help her contact her people for immediate rescue. Their ultimate goals aren’t exactly rock solid as written, but “run away from the pack of violent misogynists” is a pretty good motivation, so the plot’s sketchiness poses less a concern than the structure and filmmaking.
Ness wrote the script with Christopher Ford, and directing duties lie with Doug Liman, who feels like an appropriate choice for cerebrally oriented thrillers given his work on The Bourne Identity and The Edge of Tomorrow. (He’s also a man cursed to direct adaptations of books and comics with cool names that get dropped for far blander alternatives.) But if Chaos Walking works well enough when it’s focused on the Noise, and what a gender-exclusive society looks like when the men can’t keep out of each other’s heads, it falls apart during its action sequences and set pieces. These are the moments where stakes should be raised, but across the board the stakes don’t exist at all: There’s no sense of urgency to Todd and Viola’s mission, and no clear picture of what David and his single men’s club mean to do with her if they get their hands on her, or why. The ramifications of her presence on the New World are assumed and not dramatized.
Maybe Liman, Ness, Ford and Lionsgate bit off more than they could chew together. Chaos Walking feels like a condensement of Ness’ trilogy of books instead of a straightforward translation of the first, and consequently there’s too much that needs to happen in too slim a running time, which leaves little space for making the movie’s conflicts matter. For what it’s worth, the exercise isn’t a total waste: Any Mikkelsen is Mikkelsen worth watching, and Holland and Ridley are genuinely compelling protagonists even if their roles needed fleshing out on paper. But these merits aside, Chaos Walking is just another YA property flattened into a broadly drawn story of coming-of-age strife. Movies like Hunger Games walked so Chaos Walking could run, yet, instead, the film falls flat.
Director: Doug Liman
Writer: Patrick Ness, Christopher Ford
Starring: Tom Holland, Daisy Ridley, Mads Mikkelsen, Demián Bichir, Cynthia Erivo, David Oyelowo, Nick Jonas, Kurt Sutter
Release Date: March 5, 2021
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.