Doug Liman has a solid track record of directing fan favorite blockbusters like Edge Of Tomorrow and American Made, but you could be forgiven for not knowing that he has a $100 million film opening this week.
And it’s not just expensive. Chaos Walking stars Tom Holland of Spider-Man, Daisy Ridley of Star Wars, and perennial awards favorites Mads Mikkelsen, Demian Bichir, Cynthia Erivo, and David Oyelowo. Based on a YA series by Patrick Ness, to which Lionsgate has owned the rights since 2011, the project has had a basketball team’s worth of writers attached since then. The final, Patrick Ness/Christopher Ford iteration with Liman directing started shooting back in 2017. After reshoots in 2018 and 2019 directed by Fede Alvarez, and another COVID delay from January, Chaos Walking finally completes its long journey to theaters (yes, theaters) this week. It’s a movie that’s been in the oven forever yet still comes out feeling half baked.
Still, it’s hard not to sense the kernel of something good here. Chaos Walking is a bit like a house with “good bones.” The framework for something beautiful is there, but you’ll have to squint to see it amidst the cracked windows and trash-strewn lawn.
The plot concerns Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland), a teen born and raised in a human colony on a distant planet called New World. But here’s where it gets weird (and more importantly, difficult to convey visually): Todd, like all the men of his colony, is afflicted with a condition called “The Noise,” in which his thoughts are broadcast outwardly in a visible fog that swarms around his head at all times (shoulda just called it “Twitter,” am I right?). It’s a condition said to only affect men, though Todd can’t really test the theory as all the women in his colony including his mother were killed by this planet’s native creatures, called Spackles. Thus leaving Todd the youngest human in an all-male settlement. That is, until a human woman (Viola, played by Daisy Ridley) crash lands there from space.
One can imagine that it would be tough being a horny teen laying his eyes on a woman for the first time to have his every inner-most boner fantasy broadcast out loud. What if you couldn’t just put a book over it? As a plot conceit, The Noise is both entertaining on a surface level — a sort of reverse What Women Want — and also rewards further digging. What if men couldn’t so easily ignore and compartmentalize their own emotions?
So those are the “good bones” we were speaking of. It’s the execution of said concepts that immediately proves lacking. We’re told that some men are better at controlling The Noise than others, and characteristically, the leader of this colony of men, the Mayor, Prentiss, played by a scar-faced Mads Mikkelsen, ends up being the best at controlling it. Which is also to say, the most sphynx-like. It’s a wrinkle that partly undoes what’s interesting about the concept in the first place. Wouldn’t the person most adept at fooling themselves be the most powerful? Donald Trump was a lifelong conman who could paradoxically appear trustworthy just for lacking an inner monologue. A man who just speaks his thoughts out loud seems to have nothing to hide. Chaos Walking gropes towards insight here but doesn’t quite find it.
Meanwhile, The Noise is inconsistently applied right from the get-go, with many men in the colony appearing not to have it whenever it’s convenient for the film, and many more broadcasting thoughts that don’t add much — The Noise broadcasting “there’s Todd!” when someone sees Todd, and so forth.
Naturally, Todd finds Viola after she lands, and they strike up an interesting relationship — the boy raised in a terrestrial, hunter-gatherer society meeting the girl who was born and has lived her entire life on a spaceship (the journey takes 64 years). Yet before we can get too deep into this, there’s also an inter-colony conflict (Cynthia Erivo plays a rival mayor), the matter of the Spackles, a religious nut played by David Oyelowo, and the Mayor’s many secrets, including where the colony’s women went and why the “second wave” of colonists has never arrived. Also, a Jonas Brother is there. That’s probably too much for one film and the whole thing ends up feeling like a jumble of half-explored threads. Yet it’s packed with potentially fascinating dead ends, like a character who has to sleep in a separate room because the brain noise from his baseball dreams is so loud.
Conceptually, The Noise is an interesting way to explore men’s and women’s inability to read and understand each other. From the birth of the commercial blockbuster up until about five years ago, the vast majority of movies, and especially action and sci-fi movies, were designed to appeal to the general sensibilities of a teenage boy. It’s understandable then that Chaos Walking, a film literally centered around a teen boy’s broadcasted id, would try to avoid being too hetero horny. But it also feels like the (male) filmmakers were so worried about being not-sexist that they overcompensated by making a film that’s studiously sexless — which isn’t really the same thing.
Chaos Walking is the second Doug Liman feature to hit in 2021 and, all things considered, it’s vastly superior to his unwatchable quarantine yak-fest Locked Down. This one at least had potential. Yet it’s the kind of film that reminds us of the basic fact: making movies is hard.