Chaos WalkingReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/14/21 14:07:15
I don't know that Lionsgate has been chasing "the next 'Hunger Games'" that much harder than other studios; but since so much of a hypothetical LG+ service would be built on those series of young-adult adaptations, each obvious Part One that is never going to get a sequel looks like an even bigger misfire. So it is with "Chaos Rising", which has enough interesting ideas and talent involved that one could see it evolving into something compelling but is not nearly good enough as a movie for one to want more.Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland) is the youngest man in the Prentisstown colony on New World, which makes him the youngest person there; all the women were killed in an attack he's not old enough to remember. He appears to be something of an outcast because he has a hard time controlling his "Noise", a projection of the thoughts in his head that afflicts all males on the planet (both human and the native species). A scout vessel from the ship carrying the second wave of colonists doesn't expect this, and the crash leaves only one survivor, Viola (Daisy Ridley). One would think that the colonists from Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen) to Preacher Aaron (David Oyelowo) would be thrilled at the prospect of their community dwindling and dying until only Todd is left, but they regard Viola with suspicion and hostility, leading her to flee. Todd's fathers (Demián Bichir & Kurt Sutter) say that there may be a radio that can reach Viola's ship at Farbranch - and it's news to Todd that Prentisstown isn't the only settlement.
Putting all that in a row, it's not hard to see why various producers spent a decade trying to make the movie after Patrick Ness's novel The Knife of Never Letting Go was published and then another couple trying to fix it up when what they shot in 2017 wasn't working: It's got adventure on a new planet on one side and a powerful idea that strikes right at the heart of what teenagers, especially young women, are discovering about the dangers of the world around them and how their parents have sugar-coated it. It winds up being too much for a mainstream two-hour movie meant to start a trilogy in a couple of ways: It's okay that there's not much time to explore how New World has a history and geography that stretches well beyond the horizon of Prentisstown; that can be saved for later films, although the planet's native life is too close by for that logic. Having only passing reference to the world Viola does the film no favors, especially when you combine it with how the filmmakers always skitter away from the most potentially obvious and hard-hitting idea around The Noise, that men are constantly projecting their desires while women must work around it and hold their reactions close. The story is inextricably tied up with men playing the oppressed even as the aggressors, but the people making the movie seemingly can't bring themselves to just say that, and as a result the film is all about Todd and how he feels about Viola but seldom casts its eyes in the other direction. Viola often just has a thing she has to do.
Even once you get past the filmmakers not seeming to have the courage to dive into their big ideas - and it's worth noting that saying "the filmmakers" should not necessarily be an indictment of credited director Doug Liman and screenwriters Ness and Christopher Ford because a movie like this has passed through a lot of uncredited hands working at the behest of producers and executives trying to create the version that will be the easiest sale - it's a bland film. New World seldom has a chance to establish itself as anything other than a random dead-ringer-for-Canadian-woods planet the team would visit on Stargate SG-1, and the CGI fauna just heightens that impression rather than making it feel more alien. The production designers have clearly spent some time imagining how the planet was colonized and how the advanced technology that got humans there exists in the middle of agrarian communities with little infrastructure to manufacture more, but the script does quite connect that to Todd and the others.
The film is also frustratingly scripted at a nuts-and-bolts level, though sometimes in a way that makes one wonder whether a lot of the nuances of The Noise would have been given some explanation in the books but were cut as boring exposition here. It's noteworthy that nobody aside from Todd seems to have the level of trouble controlling their Noise as he does, and his dials back when Liman et al need a scene with few distractions, to the point where even fairly passive viewers are going to think that the filmmakers are cheating a bit. When it's revealed that there are things he doesn't know about Prentisstown, it's not unreasonable to ask both how and why - not only is the whole point of the movie that this all-male community can't help but put what they're thinking out there, but what's the point of the secret and the chase that ensues? What's the Mayor's line of thinking? It would be okay for it to be kind of irrational - people hide things for dumb reasons all the time, and the dumbest secrets can be the most closely-guarded - but the pointlessness of it all should be part of the story, not an inconvenient issue with the plot.
In some ways, the film is extremely lucky to have Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley, though the film loses a fair amount by aging Todd and Viola to their late teens or early twenties rather than their early teens (as they were in the book) - Todd especially seems a little more off the further he is from feeling like an adolescent. Holland's not bad at all - truth be told, not many actors could sell the line "Spacegirl!" or all the variations on "ugh, stop thinking that!" as often as he does within two hours - and Ridley does good work giving Viola some personality despite not appearing to have as much on the page or all the assistance the male cast members get. As little as she gets, the rest of the cast gets less, despite being a very solid group.Between the delays, people aging out, the pandemic, and the film just not being very good, the odds of this doing well enough for "The Ask and the Answer" to be adapted any time soon or with this group must be very low indeed. That's probably a good thing; between the pieces that probably make this a better book than movie and the specific decisions that didn't work, it seems like a fool's errand. The filmmakers and cast do hit on something that works often enough to make one wonder if they might do better with a second shot, but then again, there are enough of these series out there that the producers might as well start from scratch.
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