I can’t tell if Chaos Walking is a good movie trapped in the body of a terrible one, or vice versa. It has an intriguing premise and a great cast, both of which flounder in a soulless, humorless production where everyone on camera looks absolutely miserable. Indeed, Walking took four years to arrive in theaters, with reshoots, overruns, and disastrous test screenings dogging it along the way. The resulting film wasn’t released so much as it escaped, like an unshackled monster. Unfortunately, this leads me to believe that this is an awful movie, hidden within the mangled husk of something even worse.
Set in a distant, dystopian future (“Dystopian” just means everyone looks like they’re covered in shit.), Chaos Walking takes us to a new world, where everyone has ditched technology to live like frontier sodbusters. Now, here’s where it gets real spicy: The men on this Oregon Trail planet share all of their thoughts out loud, in the form of shimmering, translucent little Oort Clouds called the Noise. Most of the time, the Noise is a billow of jumbled gibberish, but sometimes a thought can become a snippet of music, or an ultra-realistic hologram of someone long-lost.
As the film begins, all the women in this settlement have vanished. Todd (Tom Holland) is the youngest inhabitant, and he knows all of this will die out with him. He’s full of questions, but the jerkwad mayor (Mads Mikkelsen) isn’t forthcoming with the answers. That leaves Todd to scratch a living with his adoptive fathers (Demián Bichir and Kurt Sutter), and wonder what else might be out there.
Naturally, this little XY universe gets shook the hell up when a spaceship crashes near Todd’s village. He soon spots the sole survivor, as she scavenges through his farm. Viola (Daisy Ridley) is smart, resourceful, and reserved, and her arrival only deepens the mystery of this planet and its powers: It turns out the women don’t project the Noise, even though they can access the cacophony of the men around them. Todd is instantly smitten, but the villagers want Viola dead. As they go on the run, it falls to Todd and Viola to figure out why, before that search gets them both killed.
The description probably makes Chaos Walking sound more coherent than it really is. The truth is that this is a disjointed mess of a movie, with scattered plot threads and ungainly ideas all stitched together like a lurching Frankenstein golem. Many aspects of the film go unexplained, such as why women don’t project the Noise. Or how the Mayor completely mutes his Noise. Still other elements pop up, only to get casually forgotten later. For example, this planet is inhabited by belligerent aliens, known as the Spackle. We get a tantalizing look at them, and then zippo for the rest of the film. That goes ditto for Nick Jonas, who gets nothing to do as the Mayor’s numbnuts son. On a side note, spackle is a great descriptive for fixing drywall, but it’s a stupid name for monstrous aliens.
Beyond Walking’s lumpy, troubled production, it’s difficult to pin blame for all this magnificent disaster. Ridley and Holland are exceptional actors, and they build legitimate chemistry with each other. As with last year’s underrated The Devil All the Time, Holland projects fragile teenage masculinity and sweet-natured likability with his performance. He commands the film with the authority of a true movie star. Meanwhile, Ridley gets hamstrung with a painfully underwritten character. The filmmakers squander her early scenes by rendering her mute. As a result, we slowly transition from not knowing anything about Viola, to simply not caring what happens to her. Ridley does what she can, but no amount of paddling can save this rotten canoe.
Maybe all this gobbledegook just played better on the written page. Walking was based on Patrick Ness’ novel, The Knife of Never Letting Go, a book that has its share of fans. A movie where dialogue bungles with voice-over thoughts from many characters at once is bound to be a thicket, whereas a novelist might be able to keep it all sorted. At the same time, I still think enormous potential gets lost here: With a different mindset, this could’ve been a compelling meditation on the things we think but don’t say. Or even how our intimate thoughts and daydreams help sustain us. As it is, we’re stuck with chaos that walks. And talks. And sucks.
109 min. PG-13.