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What went wrong with Tom Holland's "unreleasable" movie

Studio filmmaking is usually a pretty straightforward — if expensive and time-consuming — process. To simplify: a studio enlists producers to find a script (either an original or a commissioned adaptation of another work), hire a director, and assemble a cast and crew. Locations are scouted, sets and costumes are designed, and if all goes according to plan, filming begins. Then it's into the edit bay with all that footage, followed by the addition of special effects and music and the launch of a marketing campaign. A few months after that, the movie hits thousands of theaters to delight and entertain. 

Straightforward or not, that's obviously a lot of steps, which means a lot of chances for things to go wrong. Some movies are seemingly cursed, and everything that could possibly go wrong does go wrong. Take, for example, Chaos Walking. Starring Spider-Man and Rey (Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley, respectively), it should be a sure-fire crowd-pleaser… right? But this sci-fi thriller-drama has been in the hopper for years, and it's still going to be a while before audiences get a chance to see it. Here's a look into the behind-the-scenes chaos that's plagued Chaos Walking.

What is Chaos Walking?

The Chaos Walking trilogy of books by novelist Patrick Ness is an imaginative, complex, and even dense saga with a lot to say about war, gender, colonialism, and religion. The story takes place on an alien planet called New World, settled by Puritan-like humans who left what's presumably Earth more than 20 years before the events of the first book, The Knife of Never Letting Go. On this planet, all living beings can hear and see one another's thoughts in the form of an unrelenting cacophony of images, words, and sounds, which everyone accurately calls "Noise." In other words, it's chaos walking. 

As the plot unfolds, a teenager named Todd finds a place where there is no Noise, flees the male-only settlement of Prentisstown, and meets a woman named Viola (remarkable, as nobody knew there were any non-males on New World). Eventually there's a showdown between human settlers and the intelligent native race called the Spackle. 

Needless to say, there's a lot to explore in an all-encompassing Chaos Walking film. For the role of Todd, filmmakers cast Tom Holland, just as he was becoming a superstar for playing Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For Viola, they landed Daisy Ridley, fresh off her star-making turn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Anybody wanna direct a movie?

Lionsgate grabbed the rights to adapt and produce a Chaos Walking film way back in 2011. At the time, the studio had carved out a lucrative niche for itself as the company that made all the major big-screen versions of super-popular young adult novel franchises. Having already brought Twilight from the bookstore to the multiplex and with the first Hunger Games movie on the way, Chaos Walking seemed like the next logical step. 

Some major players surrounded the project, such a lock for success it seemed. Doug Davison, partially responsible for the Oscar-winning The Departed and How to Train Your Dragon, signed on to produce. Robert Zemeckis, the filmmaker behind Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, was supposed to direct, but that deal ultimately fell apart. It's a little curious that there was apparently a struggle to find a director to commit to a project with so much potential. A long five years after announcing the project, Lionsgate announced that filming could begin in the fall of 2016, now with Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) in the director's chair.

Too many cooks spoil the script

In the art of cinema, there's something called the auteur theory. It holds that a film should come from the unique and singular perspective of one person, considered the auteur (French for "author") of the movie. If one creative vision yields an excellent, cohesive film, then what kind of film results from the opposite set-up, in which a large and disparate group of people all have a hand in the process? A mess is what. For example, the critically derided The Flintstones utilized more than 30 screenwriters; the notorious bomb Catwoman reported had as many as 28.

A strong indicator that Chaos Walking was going to be a mess from start to finish is the whopping six credited screenwriters. Charlie Kaufman, the truly original screenwriting legend behind Being John Malkovich, wrote at least one draft. Lindsey Beer, best known for the teen rom-com Sierra Burgess is a Loser, took a shot. So did Gary Spinelli, writer of the based-on-a-true-story action comedy American Made, and Snow White and the Huntsman scribe John Lee Hancock. Those are some very different writers, and it's hard to imagine all of their styles meshing well together.

Rising stars couldn't save Chaos Walking

With Doug Liman behind the camera, filming on Chaos Walking finally commenced in August 2017 in Montreal. By that time, the rest of the cast had been filled out, of course, which included notable performers such as David Oyelowo (Selma), Demian Bichir (The Hateful Eight), Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal), and Nick Jonas. The shoot seemingly went well, but the result of the tireless and expensive efforts of cast and crew didn't quite meet studio expectations. 

According to the Wall Street Journal (via IndieWire), the first cut of Chaos Walking "turned out so poorly it was deemed unreleasable by executives" at Lionsgate, so said studio employees close to the situation. Yep — this film, which had cost a staggering $100 million, was apparently so awful once assembled that it wasn't fit for public consumption. 

So, what does a studio do in such an event? Cut their losses and throw the film in a vault? Dump it into theaters during an off-season and hope no one notices? Not this time. Lionsgate canceled the film's scheduled March 2019 release and ordered up extensive reshoots which would cost "millions" and take three weeks to film. The studio didn't think Chaos Walking was a lost cause. "We wouldn't be shooting more if we didn't think we could make this movie work," Lionsgate CEO John Feltheimer told the Wall Street Journal.

Holland and Ridley were too busy for reshoots

If studios invest a fortune in a major movie and a rough cut seems lackluster, it makes sense to spend a few more million on reshoots, gathering new footage to make the film a little better. In recent years, Justice League and Shazam have made headlines for re-assembling casts and crews to film extensive new scenes not long before their scheduled theatrical releases. Chaos Walking needed reshoots, too, and to generate the new script pages, the studio hired yet another screenwriter, the sixth scribe to work on the project. The good news: that writer was Patrick Ness, who wrote the novels upon which the film is based, and who has some screenwriting experience.

While Ness likely had relatively little trouble pinpointing just what was missing from the adaptation, actually filming those scenes proved difficult. Reshoot plans were announced in April 2018, but cameras didn't start to roll until April 2019. The reason: in the time after principal photography wrapped, the careers of stars Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley exploded. Neither actor could find time in their schedule for an entire year due to the fact that they had to film, respectively, Spider-Man: Far From Home and Star Wars: The Rise of the SkywalkerThat makes for a gap of about 18 months between the first scenes and last scenes shot. Holland and Ridley don't quite look like teenagers anymore, and they might appear strikingly and distractingly different from scene to scene, what with the passage of time.

Time passing for Chaos Walking

When Lionsgate kicked off pre-production on Chaos Walking in 2011 (or at least when it attempted to), sweeping movie series based on bestselling young adult sagas (particularly ones set in a dystopian future) were all the rage. For a few years in the 2010s, it seemed like another YA movie starring a fresh-faced up-and-comer hit theaters with the regularity of an MCU entry. The four movies in The Hunger Games franchise took in more than $1.4 billion in the domestic box office, and films based on similar future-teens-in-trouble books like The Maze Runner, The Giver, and Divergent performed well. 

But this wasn't a genre built to last — dystopian YA was a specific thing for a specific generation of filmgoers, and within a couple of years, its audience had moved on after a movie market saturation. The third Divergent movie did so poorly at the box office that a wrap-up finale was canceled. Standalone movies like The 5th Wave started to bomb hard. By the time production on Chaos Walking began in earnest in 2016, the writing was on the wall for the already doomed Chaos Walking — it was a movie past its sell-by date.

When will Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley walk to the screen?

With production looking to begin in late 2016, Chaos Walking seemed primed for a theatrical release in late 2017 or early 2018. That didn't quite happen — in July 2017, Variety reported that Lionsgate planned to release the film on March 1, 2019. That would've placed the film in direct competition for box office revenue with some potentially heavy hitters. That was the same announced release date of How to Train Your Dragon 3, just one week before Captain Marvel was poised to come along and destroy all competition. In the wake of necessary extensive reshoots, announced in April 2018, Chaos Walking hitting theaters in less than a year's time seemed both improbable and impractical. 

Finally, in mid-November 2018, Lionsgate admitted (albeit semi-publicly) that Chaos Walking would not arrive in theaters in less than four months' time. In an earnings conference call with investors, executive Christopher P. Albrecht said the company would be "dating that movie downstream" because reshoots weren't even scheduled to wrap up until February 2019. That March 1st date became a de facto "TBA." As of the summer of 2019, Chaos Walking is tentatively scheduled for release in 2020.