Review: Chaos Walking

Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy was never going to be an easy book series to adapt into movie form, simply because one of its central concepts – the Noise, the telepathic projection of thoughts from humans and other living things – is so difficult to represent in a visual medium.

But it turns out that the deeply annoying movie version of the Noise is not the only problem with “Chaos Walking” – it’s a staggering, awkward beast of a movie that seems to hope that we’ll find the constant overlapping chatter of Tom Holland to be suspenseful and gripping. It’s not – it’s intensely annoying, like listening to someone chatter banalities directly in your ear while you’re trying to watch TV.

Holland plays Todd Hewitt, a young man raised in a human colony where there are no women, and all the men are affected by the Noise, which causes their thoughts to manifest as voices and flickering images around their heads.

One day he encounters a strange scavenger in the woods, and a fiery spacecraft that has just crashed into their world. It turns out this stranger is a girl – something Todd has only heard of – named Viola (Daisy Ridley), and she doesn’t have the Noise. She’s from a scouting mission investigating what happened to the first wave of colonists on the planet, and she quickly discovers that Todd’s home of Prentisstown is… not friendly.

When Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelson) voices his ambition to ambush the new colony ship, Viola ends up on the run, hiding in the barn belonging to Todd and his fathers. The only hope for Todd and Viola is to get to another town that Todd has never heard of, Farbranch. Furthermore, it turns out there has been a lot of stuff that Todd hasn’t been told, specifically about the women and the native alien life.

“Chaos Walking” is one of those movies that really doesn’t have any business being as bad as it is. Ness’s original novel “The Knife of Never Letting Go” is an imaginative and clever sci-fi novel. Doug Liman has made some excellent action and sci-fi movies, and it has a cast of talented actors, both veterans and relative newcomers. Yet the sum of all these parts is as awkward and weird as Todd himself.

Liman’s direction in this film is, to put it bluntly, rather strange – there are odd silences where characters just stare and stand in place, punctuated by rapid-fire, hyperactive chattering that grated on my nerves like a belt sander. Somehow, the Noise was understandable and even cleverly-written in the book, but the way it’s handled in the movie is just… deeply unpleasant.

In addition to the awkward and grating Noise, the movie feels like large chunks of it have been sewn together haphazardly, with some events – like the early encounters with Aaron, the preacher – feeling clunky and artificial. The script also telegraphs Prentiss’ evilness and his sinister plans way, way too early, as if it’s afraid to surprise us later on – things that should be subtle and secret are instead made obvious and glaring. Just like the Noise.

The actors give a mixed bag of performances – Mikkelson is hypnotic even in his lesser roles, and here he has quiet dignity and menace as Prentiss. Sadly, David Oyelowo is two-dimensionally evil here, which seems like a waste of his talents, and Nick Jonas is thoroughly unconvincing as a thuggish rich boy who poses a physical threat to others.

Perhaps the biggest waste are Holland and Ridley. Ridley is called upon to look wide-eyed and scared almost all the time, not doing much else, and Holland is drowned out by his own pre-recorded chatter, making his character feel like an awkward weirdo who can’t stop fixating on Viola’s hair.

As valiant as “Chaos Walking’s” intentions were, the movie stumbled over its own weird, haphazard, dull self, becoming a sci-fi beast that can’t stop talking. Overall, a waste of great material and cast.

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