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- Chaos Walking
- Directed by Doug Liman
- Written by Christopher Ford and Patrick Ness, based on the novel by Patrick Ness
- Starring Tom Holland, Daisy Ridley and Mads Mikkelsen
- Classification PG; 108 minutes
Well, they got the title right: Chaos Walking is a complete mess of a movie, resulting in one of the most egregious wastes of resources and talent in recent Hollywood history. But before we get into exactly why, it’s helpful to have a rundown of the movie’s long journey into the world, which is many degrees more interesting than the film itself.
The adaptation of Patrick Ness’s dystopian young-adult novel The Knife of Never Letting Go churned through a number of uncredited screenwriters (including Mr. Adaptation himself, Charlie Kaufman) before going to camera way back in 2017. Which is when the real troubles began, with poor test screenings of director Doug Liman’s cut necessitating extensive reshoots that took two years to arrange and another director, Fede Alvarez, to oversee. The result of all the back-and-forth and many millions of dollars? A muted release in the few U.S. cinemas that were operating last month, and now an equally quiet digital release in Canada this week. Congratulations, everybody!
A disclaimer: I don’t enjoy seeing movies fail, even big shiny studio disasters like Chaos Walking. Many hundreds of people put everything they have into these kinds of gigantic would-be blockbusters. But there is a certain kind of backward pleasure in watching a movie fall to the ground with such an obvious splat. Chaos Walking is, in its own way, a masterclass in everything that contemporary filmmakers should avoid doing.
Start with the premise, so familiar in the YA realm that it feels lifted from a Mad Libs sheet stolen from Suzanne Collins’s trash can. In the distant future, a group of refugees from Earth struggle to survive on a hostile alien planet, where, for some reason or another, all the women have been killed and all the men have their inner thoughts projected into the air, to be seen and heard by everyone in spitting distance. They call it “the noise,” and it’s as silly as it sounds.
But then, as happens in these YA ventures, everything that everyone knew about their world changes in an instant thanks to a freak occurrence; in this case, the arrival of a young woman named Viola (Daisy Ridley), who crash-lands her spaceship on the planet. Now, the young Todd (Tom Holland), whose “noise” consists of him muttering admonishments and apologies to himself over and over, must play the hero by getting Viola back to her people, and maybe also uncover the truth about his world in the process.
Think of the Mel Gibson comedy What Women Want crossed with forgettable YA fare like The 5th Wave, plus a debilitating case of self-seriousness and a pace akin to a death-march. In theory, I can see why a director like Liman (Edge of Tomorrow, Jumper, Mr. & Mrs. Smith) would be attracted to such a gonzo premise. At the very least, maybe he got a kick out of how the central idea about men being so loud that they drive women to death could be viewed as a metaphor for the toxicity of the patriarchy. Or at least the annoyance of snoring.
But whatever happened between 2017 and today has been lost to the sands of time, replaced by a series of scenes alternatively stilted, exhausting, predictable, and soul-deadening. Spider-Man’s Holland and Star Wars’ Ridley, at the time of production the two biggest stars on Earth, seem as lost as anyone and generate exactly zero chemistry with one another. The choppy action seems choreographed from half a world away. And the twists ... well ... would you believe me if I said that not even the presence of Mads Mikkelsen expounding on same-sex survival could save the script’s ultimate reveals?
For any filmmaker contemplating their own YA franchise, Chaos Walking is an instructive anti-manual. For the rest of us, it’s just noise.
Chaos Walking is available on-demand, including Apple TV/iTunes and the Cineplex Store, starting April 23
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.