Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland are poorly matched protagonists in the disjointed sci-fi film, Chaos Walking. Based on the trilogy of popular young adult fiction novels by Patrick Ness, Chaos Walking has a central premise that fails to translate to the big screen. Set in the future on a planet called "New World", male characters can see and hear each other's innermost thoughts by a phenomenon called "Noise". The film portrays "Noise" visually and with voice-overs that follow almost every spoken line. The effect is continuously annoying and, even worse, compounded by bad direction. Doug Liman, one of Hollywood's most capable filmmakers, fumbles conceptually and wastes a superb ensemble cast.
Tom Holland stars as Todd Hewitt, a young man who works on the farm of his fathers (Demián Bichir, Kurt Sutter). They are survivors of the "first wave" settlement to "New World"; where all men are affected by "Noise". Their colony is called Prentisstown, run by David Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen), who has learned to use his "Noise" as a weapon. Prentisstown has no women. Todd's mother and the other females were wiped out by the "Spackle", the planet's native inhabitants.
Daisy Ridley co-stars as Viola, a scout from the "second wave" of settlers heading to "New World". Her ship crashes when the male crew is overcome by their reaction to "Noise". Todd finds Viola in the forest. She is the first woman he has ever seen, and is instantly besotted. Her lack of "Noise" unnerves him. Viola is deemed an existential threat by the town's rabid preacher (David Oyelowo). But she offers a different opportunity to the tyrannical mayor and his son (Nick Jonas). Tom resolves to protect Viola from the men of Prentisstown. As they escape deeper into "New World", Todd uncovers many secrets from the past and struggles to hide his feelings from Viola.
Let's start with the "Noise". The cacophony of mental stimuli and lack of privacy is the driver to the entire film. Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Mr. & Mrs. Smith) needed a better way to portray "Noise" without having its inherent confusion derail the plot. This is extraordinarily difficult, but must be achieved to tell the story in a fluid manner. Liman unfortunately fails at this task and the result cripples Chaos Walking. The constant secondary voice-overs and buzz of discordance in group scenes becomes a chore to watch.
The "Noise" effect is only palatable when Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland are alone together. A different approach might have been to employ a Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line) narrative style. In his films, the characters' thoughts are heard, but not obtrusive. Granted, there is a visual element here that needs to be factored in, but that could have been moderated.
Chaos Walking feels choppy and cobbled together. The film doesn't have a coherent cinematic flow. This leads to a critical lack of chemistry between Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland. They are thrown together, on the run, and speed to an utterly predictable climax. Doug Liman's editing choices seem to be the culprit. There's never any realistic tension established between his primary actors. Secondary characters and subplots vanish completely. That's a damn shame because the film is stocked with a venerated and talented cast. Mads Mikkelsen, David Oyelowo, and Demián Bichir, industry stalwarts, are pretty much forgettable.
Chaos Walking proves that adapting high-concept storylines is no easy feat. I wish Doug Liman could take a mulligan and get a do-over. His skill in filming complex science fiction, like the brilliant Edge of Tomorrow, is not evident in this effort. Fans of the novels and general audiences are going to be disappointed. Chaos Walking is a production of 3 Arts Entertainment and BRON Studios. It will be released theatrically by Lionsgate on March 5th.