I almost wasn’t going to bother with this movie because you probably already know what I’m going to say and it’s been out for almost a month already…but here we go.
The name Patrick Ness usually rings pretty positively for me as the author penned both the book and film “A Monster Calls”, one of my personal favorites from the last decade. However before “A Monster Calls” was even published Ness was responsible for a trilogy of novels called the “Chaos Walking” trilogy which were also green lit for big-screen adaptations in 2011. In the years that followed “Chaos Walking” lived up to its name through a chaotic production essentially being set up to be a disastrous feature even before it was finished. Poor test screenings in 2018 sent the film back for reshoots and the final product finally hit the big screen this year and Amazon this past weekend. Set on a planet where the thoughts of men are physically shown as Noise and no women appear to remain, a young man named Todd (Tom Holland) comes upon a woman named Viola (Daisy Ridley) and attempts to keep her safe from his all-male village run by a dictatorial mayor (Mads Mikkelsen). I’ve debated for weeks whether or not I wanted to give this film a shot and see for myself how bad it might be. I finally broke down and, yeah it’s pretty bad taking a high concept idea and watering it down to its most basic elements wasting any promise it might have had to be the next big sci-fi trilogy.
I’ll preface this review by admitting I did not read Ness’s trilogy, but I actually plan to especially since I hear it’s much better than the movie. With that said, I can’t compare it to the source material, but I have to believe it does a better job than the film at capturing the nuances of its many ideas and themes. There are a lot of promising concepts in this movie from the exploration of male dominance over women to whether or not knowing what’s going on in someone’s head is truly a blessing or a curse and even touching on the ease of politicians to corrupt even strong minds through deception and a commitment to their own cause. The concept of men having their thoughts shown to the world and women being able to hide what they’re thinking provides such an interesting and, frankly timely idea and opens so many doors, but sadly this movie refuses to explore many of these themes in much depth. “Chaos Walking” does kind of touch on some of it’s promised concepts, but usually in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments hidden beneath a bland, predictable and derivative dystopian story that feels more focused on getting from point A to point B than taking a moment to breath and delve deep into its narrative or potential.
I didn’t find the performances to be very memorable either and from what I hear a few of the actors were trying to bury this movie and I can see why. Mads Mikkelsen, who usually plays a great villain, feels pretty basic in this role as the main antagonist while Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley are fine individually but together I never felt like they had the best chemistry. This could be due to the reshoots, but they’re on-screen relationship always seemed to be a bit one note. As individual characters Holland’s Todd felt like this wimpy child who suddenly becomes a man but is rarely given many scenarios that facilitate his sudden transformations while Ridley’s Viola sways between strong heroine to damsel in destress a few too many times where one scene she seems helpless without Todd and the other she shows Todd how to get it done. The writing doesn’t do either of them favors and the whole Noise element of the plot, which gives Viola insight into Todd’s brain while facilitating distrust from Todd who can’t see what Viola is thinking, feels extremely downplayed and is used mostly for ineffective humor and to showcase Todd’s growing attraction for Viola. There’s so much more that could have been done with this scenario but when you save Todd’s Noise for jokes and only minor slips of the mind and then make Todd too trusting of a woman with no Noise, a scenario he has never experienced before, it takes all the drama out of the very idea of having one’s thoughts exposed and another’s hidden. There’s also some aliens that live on the planet and they possess the Noise but we barely see them and it’s clear this was saved as a potential storyline for sequels which is never a good thing because it makes their inclusion here feel superfluous when we have plenty of human conflict to drive the narrative, as bland as it is.
Something I can compliment this movie on is that it’s visually interesting and the world building feels inspired at the very least. However, it’s hard to respect a world where nothing interesting really happens. We get to see what is called New World beyond the borders of Todd’s own village which introduces us to the aliens Sparkle’s that inhabit the land as well as other secrets that Todd was previously ignorant to but while I can commend the cinematographer for providing some beautiful establishing shots and the settings for establishing a planet that is visibly uninhabited by bigger cities and feels like a stripped down new settlement for the humans, it’s disappointing then the background overpowers the actual story. I want to see more of this world but I couldn’t care less about seeing more from these people. The presentation of the Noise is probably the most creative element of this film as we get physical representations of what the men are thinking in mist-like thought bubbles that are visible to anyone around them and can even somewhat interact with things and people nearby. Whether it’s memories, hypotheticals, or just colors complimenting the voices in their heads, I thought this was a neat way of bringing the Noise to the screen. Again though, and I’ve said this too many times already, it’s sad that they do nothing interesting with it. The effects might leave a lot to be desired, but in a film full of wasted potential the filmmakers did actually put some thought into how the Noise would look on screen including showcasing how more experienced men can use the Noise to their advantage as a weapon…yet another neat concept lost in the shuffle of an oversimplified film.
“Choas Walking” is as bad as people say it is. I could go on about all the small things wrong with the movie but, like the narrative itself, it would be kind of a waste of time because it’s all the same song and dance we’ve seen in far too many book-to-screen adaptations over the years where a complex idea is dumbed down into something so simple it feels like a shell of what it was always meant to be. All complexity and imagination feels drained from this movie despite there being plenty to work with, maybe too much honestly. Merely passable acting, a basic script and story, and a failure to do much of anything interesting beyond the visuals with what clearly was built to be an insightful and provocative sci-fi experience all add up to a dry and cliché final product that lacks energy and spirit. To a certain audience this film will probably be enjoyable, but to someone like me who respects both films and books that are willing and able to take interesting ideas and present them in a creative way it’s hard for me to recommend this as anything more than background noise if you’re bored on a weeknight and need something to keep your mind occupied. If nothing else, it did inspire me to give the “Chaos Walking” trilogy a chance because it’s hard to believe that Ness’s original award-winning series could ever be this dull.