Sunday, September 19, 2021

Chaos Walking is a half-formed disaster

Here it is. It exists. Chaos Walking isn't just finished, it's been released to theaters and then put on physical home video. Now it can just be another DVD on a library shelf or on a bookcase that lingers in the background of a YouTube movie reviewer. Watching Chaos Walking crawling into actual existence is like watching the battered version of The King "Strip Weathers" getting pushed across the finish line in Cars. It's not an ideal way to finish things off, but you can't help but smile at seeing something that struggled so much managing to wrap everything up. Now if only Chaos Walking had managed to deliver a competent completed movie...

Todd (Tom Holland) is a young man living on New World, a faraway planet where all the male inhabitants have been infected by The Noise, which transmits their thoughts out loud. There are women on this frontier planet and all the people in Prentisstown under the watchful eye of Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen). Chaos gets spurred by the sudden arrival of Viola (Daisy Ridley), an astronaut that crash lands on the planet. Todd takes a liking to Viola but Mayor Prentiss wants to kill her so that she can't sabotage his plans to use her rescue spaceship for his own nefarious means. Now, Viola and Todd are on the run searching for a place to contact Viola's other cosmic companions while the latter character will all their visions of New World challenged.

I'd say Chaos Walking feels phoned-in but I don't want to insult helpful telephone communications. Under the direction of Doug Liman, Chaos Walking is a bafflingly inert affair. Not so much grim as it is lethargic, there isn't much personality to be found here and even less fun or excitement. The closest thing Chaos Walking has to a distinctive trait is the juxtaposition between its A-list cast and the generic forest environments they act against. This production had enough money to afford multiple Oscar-nominees and the newest Spider-Man yet opted to render the various realms of New World with the kind of backdrops you'd see in a YouTube fan film from 2010.

The dissonance there won't be enough to stave off the tedium that quickly sets in while watching Chaos Walking, so if you're like me, you'll start entertaining yourself with some of the more amusing shortcomings. For starters, how old is Todd supposed to be? Multiple characters refer to him as "boy" in a non-derogatory manner, so that means he must be maybe 12-13. After watching the movie, I was informed by somebody whose read the book this is based on (The Knife of Never Letting Go) that Todd is indeed supposed to be 12. But casting 20+ year old Tom Holland, not to mention crafting a joke where Viola is taken aback by his ripped body, signifies that he must be an adult. Yet his behavior and dialogue oscillate between feeling like they come from 14 year old and a particularly world-weary 18-year-old?

Confounding decisions abound here right from the start of the movie, which begins with a quote against a black screen attempting to explain the movies title that will only confound newcomers since it uses in-universe terminology (including crediting the quote to a "Founding New World Member") that the audience doesn't know yet. Also a baffling story structure choice to have Viola discover that Prentiss is explicitly evil just a few minutes into her time on New World, but then have Todd insist he's good for the majority of the runtime. We're all just waiting for Todd to play catchup on realizing an obvious villain is an obvious villain. There's nothing dramatically compelling about that! 

Doug Liman isn't an auteur, per see, but his works ranging from The Bourne Identity to Edge of Tomorrow to Mr. and Mrs. Smith emphasize the vulnerabilities in their action movie leads. Even The Wall, his microbudget 2017 movie for Amazon, had John Cena not beat up armies of henchmen with one hand, but get shot and be mortally injured for almost the entire runtime. This thematic motif and any other fingerprints from Liman are nowhere to be found here. The filmmaking in Chaos Walking is as drained of personality as the performances. Even the chance to visually represent the thoughts of men through The Noise doesn't conjure up anything more than just having what looks like the rainbow-colored barrier from Annihilation hovering over people's heads.

Even the star-studded cast in Chaos Walking offers little of substance beyond unintentional amusement at how clumsily-incorporated certain supporting characters are. David Oyelowo (who I guess is cursed to always get wasted in major American movies that aren't Selma) is around as an angsty preacher that ends up having no consequence on the plot, as reinforced by his comically superfluous death scene. Nick Jonas also exists in this as the son of Prentiss. He eventually just vanishes from the proceedings. It's like he never even existed. His presence in Chaos Walking fittingly represents how the movie will fare in the minds of moviegoers.

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