One of the first science fiction movies of the year, Chaos Walking (in theaters now) appears to show great promise. With its slick premise, enrapturing action and striking title, it has every look of a sci-fi fan’s dream come true. To top it off, its star-studded cast includes the likes of Tom Holland, Daisy Ridley and Mads Mikkelsen, and behind the camera is director Doug Liman, responsible for the critically acclaimed Edge of Tomorrow.
Set in a dystopia in the near future, Chaos Walking tells of Todd (Holland), a teenager living on a planet called New World that closely resembles Earth. The twist, though, is that only the men are left, and all of them are afflicted with the Noise, which causes their inner thoughts to be heard by those around them. When a girl, Viola (Ridley), crash-lands in Todd’s hometown of Prentisstown, the two go on the run, armed only with a map, to unearth the dark secrets of New World.
The inventive storyline comes from Patrick Ness’ best-selling young adult novel The Knife of Never Letting Go, though the movie does stray from its source material in a few ways. Viola’s character arc is not as rich and well-developed as in the novel, which adds to one of the many weaknesses that gradually become evident as the story progresses. Another important change that shifts its tone is the age of the titular characters; Todd and Viola are appreciably older than the 13-year-olds in the novel.
The very first scene places us right in the action — and right into the weirdness of it all. Purple-blue wisps, physical manifestation of the Noise, are swirling around Todd’s head as he hunts in the woods. His thoughts are heard through muttered, overlapping voice-overs, which serve as a garbled sort of narration through which we get to know Todd. While everyone has trouble controlling the Noise, it is especially difficult for him, and he repeats phrases incessantly as a way to hide his thoughts.
The first few sequences mainly serve to acquaint the audience with the disorienting world. In his run-down village, Todd is raised by foster fathers and, to their disapproval, seems to look up to the sleazeball mayor (Mikkelsen). Instead of the genre’s typical ultramodern aesthetic, the setting is highly reminiscent of that of a Western, with the middle-of-nowhere feel, men riding on horses and a noticeable abundance of cowboy hats.
When Viola enters the picture, the plot really begins. Todd is the one who initially discovers her and is bewildered to see her, having never encountered a girl before in his life. The news of her arrival sends shock waves through the town, in part due to the fact that she has no Noise, and she gets ushered away to have an audience with the mayor. Here, we learn that all the women have been killed by an alien species known as the Spackle. The cause of the Noise, however, is as of yet unknown.
Tensions begin to arise after Viola senses the hostile motives that the men have toward her. Seeing the good in Todd, she takes the chance to run away with him to an uncertain future. Soon thereafter, though, the intrigue begins to diminish and the movie starts to go downhill. The concepts of the dystopian world that started out as flashy and interesting inevitably grow dull without novel story elements, and the latter half of the movie just isn’t driven by much.
For one, there’s a great deal of walking — perhaps the title should have served as a warning for that — mostly through the wilderness and sometimes without a clear aim in sight. To add to the lackluster mood, the two characters don’t quite jump off the screen as they do the page. For the most part, they closely align with the stereotypes we’ve seen one too many times: the awkward teen boy with a good heart and the enigmatic girl of few words.
It doesn’t help that distractions ran rampant throughout the film as well. While the visual effects must be applauded, the way the Noise is portrayed has its fair share of problems. The voiceovers are sometimes unintelligible, often overwhelming and dominating. The constant buzzing in the background takes away from the story; its repetitive nature easily becomes tired too.
By the time it reaches its foreseeable resolution, it is clear that Chaos Walking contains multitudes of unfulfilled potential. Fascinating, multidimensional characters get reduced to a shade of their original complexity. The choice to focus on Todd’s perspective leaves out all the interesting territory that could’ve come with exploring Viola’s. Brilliant source material was altered and reshoots plagued the coherence of the story.
One can’t help but think that this movie could’ve been something great if it had been able to retain the spirit of the novel and build on the momentum it began with. These kinds of mistakes are thankfully becoming less and less common in Hollywood, but Chaos Walking is a prime example of the ways in which film adaptations can fail spectacularly.