Daisy Ridley plays a colonist from Earth who crash-lands on a strange planet among a hostile all-male community, with Tom Holland as the good guy shepherding her to safety in Doug Liman’s dystopian sci-fi movie.
Toxic masculinity is an interplanetary export in Doug Liman’s Chaos Walking, in which the male population of human settlers experience a reaction to the environment of the “New World” that renders their every thought both audible and visible. The multihued blur of movement created around them by that unfiltered “Noise” at first had me wondering about a faulty link, or a possible need for picture adjustment on my TV. Not that the visual effects aren’t slick, like everything else in this dour sci-fi saga. The issue is more that the information overload afflicting the men onscreen also infects the muddy storytelling from the start, failing to hook you into the characters or their plight.
Lionsgate might find a built-in audience among readers of the YA sci-fi series by British American journalist and fiction writer Patrick Ness that sparked this adaptation, specifically the first book, The Knife of Never Letting Go. Others will find the dystopian dirge and its simplistic gender politics a bit of a bore. The numbing suggestion that men more than two centuries into the future are still being driven insane with rage by their inability to read women seems like the stuff of feminist parody. Minus the humor.
On paper, this probably looked like a good fit for Liman. It has a dash of the visceral chase action that he choreographed so vigorously in The Bourne Identity, and it steers the director back to future territory adjacent to that of his enjoyable time-loop thrill ride, Edge of Tomorrow. No wonder he was able to assemble such an over-qualified cast of compelling actors, a couple of them given virtually nothing to do.
But some quintessential spark is missing. The characters are uninvolving, the emotional stakes never fully take hold and the physical action invariably promises more than it delivers. The core weakness is the adaptation by Christopher Ford (Spider-Man: Homecoming) and Ness, which lacks the subtler nuances and spiritual dimension the novelist brought to the screen retelling of his book A Monster Calls in 2017.
The film unfolds like a space Western in 2257 A.D. on a planet that looks like a very woodsy version of our own. (Shooting took place in a mountainous forest outside Montreal.) Production designer Dan Weil does a striking job of world-building, creating a farming community of compact low structures that suggest futuristic assembly materials while also nodding back to the image of the traditional Americana frontier town.
Orphaned young hero Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland) works the beet fields with his guardians Ben (Demián Bichir) and Cillian (Kurt Sutter). He has swallowed the version of history recounted by the mayor, David Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen), for whom the town is named. The latter claims all the women colonists — who were immune to the phenomenon of the Noise — were slaughtered by the planet’s indigenous species, the Spackle.
The authority of Mayor Prentiss — reflected in his elevated quarters — also hinges on his ability to control his Noise, meaning he’s one of the few male characters not surrounded by a swirl of mumbly personal hubbub. He calms the men with his Zen Master chant: “I am the circle, and the circle is me.” Even with Mikkelsen’s usual command, the mayor is standard-issue sinister, though he at least has the look of a fabulous villain, riding on horseback wrapped in a massive russet fur that’s like something pilfered from Iris Apfel’s closet. He seems to have more belief in Todd’s potential than in his own son, Davy Jr. (Nick Jonas).
The other Prentisstown fixture who should be larger-than-life but instead is kind of a thunderous drag is Preacher Aaron (David Oyelowo), whose flock has mostly abandoned the faith, leaving him alone with the Noise of his sins, except when he’s getting inside the other guys’ heads.
Todd, whose mother died when he was a baby, has never seen a girl. That changes when a scouting pod from an incoming colony flight crash-lands in the woods and he spots sole survivor Viola (Daisy Ridley), likely named by Ness for Shakespeare’s shipwrecked Twelfth Night heroine. She’s smart enough to realize that the mayor’s intentions are shady, so she takes off on a handy computerized motorcycle, intent on warning the 4,000 colonists en route to the New World of a planned ambush. Kindly, Ben urges Todd to go along and ensure her safety, with the two of them pursued by Prentiss and his posse.
The chief difference separating this from archetypal Westerns in which cowboys keep vulnerable females from harm as they traverse treacherous lands (True Grit, Broken Trail, News of the World) is that Viola’s superior intelligence almost invariably gives her the upper hand. It doesn’t help Todd’s case that she can see and hear his churning thoughts while hers remain private. But the chemistry between Ridley and Holland lacks heat, even for a blossoming relationship in which she keeps romance off the table.
Still, Todd provides for her by catching a giant lake creature to cook, giving lab-raised Viola her first taste of organic food, and he steps in to fight off an angry Spackle. That hulking creature has a featureless face, skin like tar and webbed feet, with a rangy, humanoid body missing an arm, suggesting the species may not be the fierce barbarians Prentiss has described. Humane Viola stops Todd from killing it, which goes against everything he’s been taught. But the Spackle element gets more or less forgotten thereafter.
There are welcome moments of intimacy during which Viola reads the journal of the illiterate Todd’s mother for him, illuminating his understanding of the past and of the true nature of the mayor. But there’s a drearily formulaic quality to the action, from a close shave with the inflamed preacher in raging rapids to a narrow escape from Prentiss and his men after Todd and Viola have found shelter with a mixed-gender farm community headed by a woman, Mayor Hildy (Cynthia Erivo). There are few surprises in the climactic showdown, though designer Weil does provide visual interest in the decayed shell of the first colony spaceship.
Liman and editor Doc Crotzer keep things humming along efficiently enough, with a nudge from a big, muscular score by Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts. And in-demand action cinematographer Ben Seresin (he shot the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong) takes advantage of the rolling green landscapes in terms of breadth and atmosphere. Maybe genre fans starved for large-scale sci-fi will find some appeal in the joyless journey. I couldn’t get past the tiresome premise of men quite literally airing their insecurities.
Production companies: Lionsgate, Quadrant Pictures, Allison Shearmur, 3 Arts Entertainment
Cast: Daisy Ridley, Tom Holland, Mads Mikkelsen, Demián Bichir, Cynthia Erivo, Nick Jonas, Ray McKinnon, Kurt Sutter, David Oyelowo
Director: Doug Liman
Screenwriters: Patrick Ness, Christopher Ford, based on the book The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Ness
Producers: Doug Davison, Allison Shearmur, Erwin Stoff, Alison Winter
Executive producers: Ray Angelic, Erik Feig, Iron Chen, Paris Kassidokostas-Latsis, Jason Cloth
Director of photography: Ben Seresin
Production designer: Dan Weil
Costume designer: Kate Hawley
Music: Marco Beltrami, Brandon Roberts
Editor: Doc Crotzer
Sound designer: Lon Bender
Visual effects supervisor: Matt Johnson
Casting: Jeanne McCarthy, Nicole Abellara Hallman
Rated PG-13, 109 minutes