Chaos Walking (2021) Review
I AM TOM HEWITT!
I AM TOM HEWITT! I AM TOM HEWITT!
In the literary world of teen / YA endeavors, there has been a plethora of narratives and themes that speak to those of that “young adolescent” age; focusing on courageous young people who either go on a journey of self-discovery or defeat an oppressive enemy. More often that not, these two ideas merged together; creating stories that speak to the young at heart yet also supplanting themes from a wide variety of literary genres (i.e., fantasy, sci-fi, romance, horror, etc.) and, while the “what’s popular” landscape as changed every so often, the collectively idealism for Teen / YA novels (or series) has remained fundamentally the same. Given the success of most of the titles in this realm, it comes at no surprise that Hollywood would take an interest in delving into the literary worlds for a cinematic translation. Unfortunately, while these “page to screen” adaptations bring a lot of inherit hype and anticipation for these projects with some finding success, a large amount of these endeavors ultimately fall to the wayside; lacking the substance how everything translate due to poor execution, casting choices, or lackluster presentation. This includes 2006’s Eragon (based on the first book of the Inheritance Cycle series by Christopher Paolini), 2013’s Mortal Instrument: City of Bones (based on the first book of The Mortal Instrument series by Cassandra Clare), and 2018’s Mortal Engines (based on the first book of the Mortal Engines Quartet by Phillip Reeve just to name a few. Now, Lionsgate and director Doug Liman present the latest cinematic take on a popular Teen / YA novel with the release of the film Chaos Walking, which is based off of the first book of the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness. Does this sci-fi film find merit within its translation from “book to film” or is it a messy and haphazard presentation that crumbles underneath its own ambition?
The year is 2257 and planetary settlers have a made a life for themselves on a new planet named “New World”, dealing with The Spackle, the native alien race who’s been driven off the land. The patriarchal society of this new establishment (named Prentisstown) is run by David Prentiss aka The Mayor (Mads Mikkelsen), who rules with authority, watching over a community of mean who deal with The Noise, a special mental condition where a person’s inner thoughts are manifested and visible in misty shapes. Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland) is a particular youth who struggles to contain his Noise as he deals with his volatile neighbors, focused on his dog and daily work as a beet farmer for his guardian, Ben (Demian Bichir). Crashing landing into the area is Viola Eade (Daisy Ridley), a member of the Second Wave expedition that were expected on New World years ago. As the survivor of her crew and being a female with The Noise, Viola is branded as a threat by The Mayor, but Todd senses something different about the strange new visitor, helping her escape the region, with the pair of young adults looking for safety in a hostile world.
The GOOD / THE BAD
Working at a bookstore for many years (left the job back at the beginning of 2020), I have seeing many (and I do mean many) Teen / YA novels come and go off the shelves throughout the years. Of course, shelving them, I took a glance at a few and some I do have to admit that I took an interesting in; reading them and enjoying the tales that they have to offer, which is mostly young teen angst / romance within a particular literary genre setup. Of course, being a fan of the more fantasy / sci-fi tales, I was a bit more inclined to gear towards those ones more so than the mushy paranormal romances out there (sorry Twilight fans). As mentioned, Hollywood definitely has a keen interest in adapting various novels, with a special interest in the Teen / YA genre. However, those endeavors are a bit of mixed bag. Some are pretty good like 2014’s The Fault in Our Stars as well as The Hunger Games series (2012-2015), and The Maze Runner trilogy (2014-2018), while others like 2016’s The 5th Wave, 2006’s Eragon, and 2013’s The Host were doomed right from the start and bent on being unmemorable box office bombs. Overall, it appears that Hollywood has little interest in slowing down the film adaptation train mindset and will continue to look towards the bestselling and / or popular trends of Teen / YA novels.
This naturally brings me back to talking about Chaos Walking, a 2021 dystopian sci-fi drama and based off of the first book in Teen / YA author Patrick Ness’s trilogy of the same name. I do remember hearing awhile ago that there was talk of adapting one of Ness’s book. This definitely kind of gained my interest as I was quite impressed with how Hollywood had managed to make a very poignant and moving “book to film” translation with the adaptation of Ness’s other novel with the theatrical release of 2017’s A Monster Calls. Plus, it was announced that both actor Tom Holland and actress Daisy Ridley were going to be attached to the project and playing the film’s two main leads. So….having Peter Parker and Rey together in a movie. I, for one, was definitely interested. However, while the movie was originally gonna be released for March 1st, 2019, the film received poor test screening results, which prompted the studio to conduct reshoots. Unfortunately, due to the commits by Holland for Spider-Man: Far from Home and Ridley for Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker, those reshoots were delayed until April 2019. I kept on seeing the film’s movie trailer for quite some time (both in theaters and online) and kept on wondering when this particular movie was gonna be released. Of course, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic played a part in that, with the film scheduled to be released on January 22nd, 2021 and it was finally moved to March 5th, 2021. So, I took a chance and purchased a ticket to go to see Chaos Walking (at one of my local movie theater) on one of my days off from work. And what did I think of it? Well, it wasn’t that great. Despite having an interesting sci-fi hook and the necessary star power to garnish attention, Chaos Walking is a messy endeavor that struggles to find a cinematic and entertaining footing within its source material. It’s definitely a well-made film, but it is just poorly executed on a lot of fronts and positions.
As I’ll mention before I dive into my review, I did not have the chance to read Patrick Ness’s novel titled “The Knife of Never Letting Go” (the first novel in his Chaos Walking of which this movie is based on). Thus, my review is gonna be solely based on what I saw in the film and not what was added, changed, or omitted from the translation in “page to screen” presentation.
Chaos Walking is directed by Doug Liman, whose previous directorial works includes such films like Swingers, American Made, and Edge of Tomorrow (or Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow as some call it). Given the amount of success he had with Edge of Tomorrow (I really did like that movie), it clear that Liman has a certain type of finesse when dealing with complexed storytelling, which are motivated by characters and plot development. Thus, delving into the Teen / YA sci-fi realm of Ness’s first novel of the Chaos Walking trilogy seemed like a suitable, especially since The Noise gimmick seem right up his alley to his Edge of Tomorrow’s Groundhog Day scenario. In this regard, Liman succeeds; shaping Ness’s source material in a way that seem quite interesting and playing off that sci-fi gimmick of The Noise in an intriguing way. The movie definitely struggles (more on that below), but Liman does offer glimpses of satisfaction here and there; projecting (in those moments) the right amount of sci-fi flair with character-built constructs. This is mostly apparent in the depiction of the film’s main character of Tom, who gets the most screen time and makes for interesting quandary-like persona. Plus, I like how the movie doesn’t go full sci-fi (i.e., nothing grandiose like a Star Trek or Star Wars movie) as the narrative keeps one foot in the real world and one in the fictional setting. Plus, I do like how Liman sprinkles a few comedic bits into the film that offer up a few glimmers of levity in this otherwise gravitas plot. As a side-note, I do have to say that I like the cute dog (named Manchee) that accompanies Tom throughout the majority of the film. However, one can easily surmise what the fate of the dog will be in the movie from past iteration of a canine companion to a main lead. Just saying.
Within its presentation, Chaos Walking does do a decent job in creating the film’s setting and backdrop layering. Given the production budget being roughly $100 million, perhaps a lot of the money went into the cast (Chaos Walking employs a lot of star power in the feature) and in the film’s reshoot process. Thus, the production value is a bit on the wayside (just a tad), but what’s presented definitely works within their budget and does a good job, especially since the rest of the movie is a bit of a flux (more on that below). Suffice to say… the world of The New World (the primary setting for Chaos Walking) has an interesting that’s both familiar and otherworldly at the same time, but mostly familiar with human hodgepodge settlements and large wilderness forest areas to explored. Of course, there are spurts of sci-fi elements and nuances that pepper the feature here and there; giving that otherworldly feeling. Thus, the “behind the scenes” team, including the entire art direction team as well as Dan Weil (production design), Frank Galline and Martine Kazemirchuk (set decorations), and Ben Seresin (cinematography) should be commended for their efforts to bring this film world to life in a believable way. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts, is a solid production that (like the presentation) gets the job done within its musical composition. Nothing truly stands out, but….as I said….it gets the job done. No harm, no foul.
Unfortunately, Chaos Walking is far from the stellar package that it was hyped up to be, with a bountiful point of criticism that weigh the project down from reaching critical status that was promised. How so? Well, for starters, the biggest thing that many draw criticisms, including myself, is the simple fact that the movie’s pacing is way off. To be fair, chasing / running movies are always a bit difficult to pull off, especially since there is a lot of movement (i.e., walking scenes) to be shown and person (or persons) comes across a variety of allies, enemies, and obstacles along the way. Chaos Walking follows that formula to a “T”, but Liman never gives the feature enough “oomph” or that extra “push” to make the film’s journey that much more enticing and / or excitement throughout. In truth, a lot of the movie’s walking scenes with Tom and Viola being rather boring with very little happening except a few words of exchanges, Tom’s Noise manifesting, and maybe one or two problems. This cycle repeats itself for a large portion of the film, including the end of the first act and almost the entire second act; finding the narrative accomplish not much. This creates a lot of pacing issue and makes the feature have that sluggish feeling of not a whole lot happening, which is quite perplexing as Chaos Walking’s runtime is a lean 109 minutes (one hour and forty-nine minutes).
This, of course, leads into the film’s other problem, which is found within its own story. As a mentioned above, I didn’t read Ness’s novels, so I can’t make correlation differences between “page to screen”. However, what I can mention is that the movie’s story feels like something is missing in various parts throughout. This then falls into the screenplay, which was penned by Ness himself as well as Christopher Ford, and finds a lot of the film’s narrative jumbled together. This is strange because Ness himself worked the script for the movie and usually if the main creator behind source material is working on the film adaptation…. then the movie itself will benefit that much more. However, that is not the case with Chaos Walking as I found the film a bit confusing within its own narrative by playing certain events and sequences a bit “fast and loose” and generating a lot of glaring plot holes that are never fully explained. This also extends to much of the film’s backstory and world building in the movie; finding a lot of the New World to be left unexplored within its nuances and leaves a lot more to be desired / discovered. Yes, I’m sure that this would be further expanded upon in Ness’s book (and its follow-up sequels), but what’s presented seems to barely scratches the surface. This idea is further examined when the film talks about the indigenous alien beings that live on New World….The Spackle. In the movie, its hinted at their existence and their importance to the narrative, but are only brief mentioned and feel like a underutilized asset that the movie could’ve expanded upon, especially from a sci-fi aspect. I was definitely disappointed in this.
Even looking beyond those points of criticism, Liman’s direction for Chaos Walking is a bit wonky and doesn’t have a stead hand on this project. Considering those plot holes that I mentioned and the pacing issues, the film is riddled with problems and Liman seems to struggle on how to propel the narrative forward. This also extends to his ability to make for some compelling characters; cultivating in a mostly hodgepodge mess of characters that are woefully underdeveloped and stock-like to the touch (more on that below). Such an example of this is in The Mayor’s son, David Prentiss, who is initially setup as almost a rival to main character Tom Hewitt, but it almost completely forgotten by after the first act. This also begs to question as to the poor reception the film had prior towards its release, with Liman delaying the project for reshoots to make Chaos Walking better. The end result, however, is nothing substantial and almost creates a posing question as to what Liman original shot for the movie prior to those reshoots.
Another problem is found within the feature’s main hook of The Noise. Naturally, its quite a unique opportunity for a narrative purpose and is probably one of the main reasons why the novel was presented, especially for a cinematic visual. This definitely works and gives Chaos Walking and intriguing sci-fi premise that will get viewers interested in the movie. However, this gimmick gets old really fast and almost wears out its welcome. For sure, the usage of it definitely works, especially in certain characters (see the character of Preacher) for some good visual fun and entertainment, but Chaos Walking keeps up the repetitiveness of the using The Noise within the same content again and again. The is especially noticeable in those walking scenes that mentioned between Tom and Viola, where Tom’s Noise says that same thing over and over again with Viola mostly just staring at him and asking him wayward questions. Again, the hook idea is there, but the usage of The Noise grows tiresome and the gimmick starts to fell almost like an irritating grind.
Lastly, I do have to say that the film’s climatic ending point is rather weak. I won’t spoil it for my readers out there, but suffice to say it doesn’t amount to a whole lot. There were some things that I kind of expected, so they didn’t surprise me as I wasn’t “wowed” over when it did happen, but climactic build up point for the film feels lackluster and kind of left a bit of an unsatisfying feeling. Even the movie’s closing moments feel generic and clunky.
The cast of Chaos Walking is rather good, with a collective grouping of plenty recognizable actors and actresses assembled. Unfortunately, most are heavily underutilized within the film’s script; making them (and their respective characters) woefully bland and unmemorable. Headlining the movie are the feature’s two main protagonist characters of Tom Hewitt and Viola Eade, who are played by recognizable stars Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley. Holland, known for his roles as Spider-Man in the MCU movies (Spider-Man: Homecoming, Avengers: Infinity War, and Spider-Man: Far from Home) as well as The Impossible and Cherry, has certainly become a popular rising star in current Hollywood and has begun appearing in a multitude of various projects all over the place. Holland’s involvement in Chaos Walking is one such case and does feel like Holland is trying his best to make his portrayal of Tom Hewlett memorable. Well, he only half makes Tom memorable, for Holland’s screen presences carries weight, but doesn’t feel that Liman never fully capitalizes on the young actor’s special “spark”, especially in comparsion to his much more likable and character depth portrayal of Peter Park in the MCU. In truth, the character of Tom is a bit bland, with Liman and his writers making him have a strong foundation of belief as well as a mixture of youthful urges (he likes Viola because he’s never seeing a girl), but fails to make for such a strong and compelling character; rendering Holland’s performance a bit moot.
Likewise, Ridley, known for her roles in the new Star Wars sequel trilogy (The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker) as well as Ophelia and Murder on the Orient Express, is okay in the movie, but never really makes the character her own. A bit of the reason comes from Liman’s direction for the character, who never gets the amount of screen time for Ridley to make Viola an impressionable on-screen character (unlike Holland) and the screenplay for the movie never affords to us (the viewer) to fully get to know Viola other than a lead female architype within a sci-fi premise. Plus, Ridley never delves deep enough to make their character of Viola come alive as if she’s playing it safe or doesn’t know how to make the character work. Plus, while the intention is there, Holland and Ridley are a bit awkward within their on-screen chemistry, so I couldn’t buy into it. Altogether, while the film touts the package of having Peter Parker and Rey together in a movie as the main lead roles, the actual result of Holland’s Tom and Ridley’s Viola never comes into fruition; leaving most of their work bland and a bit lackluster.
Perhaps who actually shines the best in the movie (more so than Holland or Ridley) is in Chaos Walking’s antagonist character of David Prentiss (aka The Mayor of Prentisstown), who is played by seasoned actor Mad Mikkelsen. Known for his roles in Casino Royale, Doctor Strange, and Hannibal, Mikkelsen has built up a reputation for being almost type casted as the “villian” of the movie and (for lack of better words) does pull it off beautifully. Regardless if the movie is bad or not, Mikkelsen also shines in that role. This is the point made in Chaos Walking, with Mikkelsen brings his “A” game quality of acting into the role of The Mayor. The character himself is quite straightforward and almost a bit of cliché of other baddies out there (i.e., hiding a dark secret and keeper of the truth behind the machinations of the central plot), but it is Mikkelsen’s creepy screen presence that makes the character memorable.
The only other supporting character in the movie that is worth noting is in the character of Aaron, who is also known in the film as Preacher. Played by actor David Oyelowo (Selma and Come Away), the character of Aaron / Preacher isn’t exactly the most dynamic or well-rounded character in the movie as he is more generally a stock-like character. That being said, what makes him interesting is that he’s a religious zealot and that his Noise comes off with plenty of aggression and self-righteous biblical vibe. Plus, Oyelowo brings a lot of that zeal to Preacher’s “fire and brimstone” nuances, which makes the character visually compelling.
Sadly, majority of the rest of the supporting characters fall to the wayside and never really come alive, despite the star power behind them. This includes actress Cynthia Erivo (Harriet and Bad Times at the El Royale) as the leader of the Farbranch settlement in the New World named Hildy Branch, actor Demian Bichir (The Hateful Eight and The Nun) as one of Tom’s adoptive fathers named Ben Moore, actor / writer Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy and The Bastard’s Executioner) as another one of Tom’s adoptive fathers named Cillian Boyd, musician / actor Nick Jonas (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Midway) as the Mayor’s headstrong son David “Davy” Prentiss, and actor Ray McKinnon (Deadwood and Ford vs. Ferrari) as resident of the Farbranch settlement named Matthew. Most of these acting talents are well-known / well-recognizable for their past endeavors and I kind of got a little bit excited when they appeared in the movie as I like all of them. However, the movie also underutilizes them and makes more like stock-like caricature components within Chaos Walking’s narrative. Of course, most work with the material that is given to them, but nothing of them truly shine or even create a lasting impression, which is a disservice to their acting talents.
The truth is out there as Tom Hewlett gets involve in trying to save recent outworlder Viola Eade escape captivity from The Mayor of Prentisstown in the movie Chaos Walking. Director Doug Liman’s latest film sees to tackle the bestselling YA novel from Patrick Ness; presenting a sci-fi endeavor that seems hone in on the director’s likeability from his 2014 sci-fi epic. Unfortunately, despite having an interesting concept and great cast, the film struggles to find balance within its own context, which is due to Liman’s direction, glaring plot holes, pacing issues, a generic script, underutilized components, a gimmick that overstays its welcome, and underdeveloped characters. Personally, I thought that this movie was pretty “meh”. Yes, it had its moments, but nothing spectacular and wasn’t exactly worth the long hype that was placed on the feature. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is a definite “skip it” as it struggles to find an entertainment value for us (as moviegoer viewers) to find an interest in. While I mentioned that this movie loosely covers the first novel of Ness’s trilogy, I hard doubt that a second installment covering the events of The Ask and the Answer (Ness’s second novel) will come to light anytime soon. In the end, while Hollywood will continue to look towards various Teen / YA novels for cinematic inspiration, Chaos Walking ends up being another fumbling misstep that generates more of a messy disaster than a memorable hit.
2.5 Out of 5 (Skip It)
Released On: March 5th, 2021
Reviewed On: March 13th, 2021
Chaos Walking is 109 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for violence and language