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Chaos Walking Review: Bringing The Noise

Much like the characters who populate the sci-fi world of Chaos Walking, the film itself is muddled, messy and frequently confused. There are moments of inspiration to be found, and game performances by Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley can't be faulted, but ultimately the film can best be summed up by reversing the famous Alien tagline: In space, everyone can hear you scream — and no one has anything particularly interesting to say.

The film begins with a quote that explains the title: "The noise is a man's thoughts unfiltered, and without a filter a man is just chaos walking." We are quickly introduced to a dystopian reality on a planet far away, as well as Holland's Todd and a whole bunch of backstory. A group of humans came to settle this planet, but discovered that the atmosphere creates something called "The Noise" — a force that takes your thoughts, projects them for all to hear, and even manifests itself in a mist around the thinker's head that sometimes gives off a hologram-like image.

This not only tormented everyone upon arrival, but also made things harder for the settlers' two newfound enemies: women (who were immune to the Noise) and Spackle (creatures native to the planet). Depending on who you're listening to — or whose thoughts you can hear — the Spackle are trying to kill the humans and the humans need to hide, but this much is clear: the women were all slaughtered.

Until, that is, a spaceship containing Viola (Ridley) crash lands on the planet. Todd is instantly smitten with the mysterious woman, and not only because he's never seen a girl before. In no time, the two are on the run from the Mayor (Mads Mikkelsen) and his men, desperately trying to cross the planet and take measures that will make things more hospitable for future human settlement.

Far and away, the most memorable thing about Chaos Walking is the gimmick. What if every thought you had was broadcast to those in your immediate area, frequently with visual accompaniment? 

The concept feels like the greatest idea Andrew Niccol never came up with. For those unfamiliar, Niccol has built his career writing and directing mind-bending sci-fi ideas (Gattaca, S1m0ne, In Time) that feel like one great trick with a script built around it. But Chaos Walking has nothing to do with Niccol, and instead is based on a series of books by Patrick Ness, directed by Doug Liman (Swingers, The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow) — and feels like a companion piece to Liman's 2008 flick Jumper, which was similarly a unique concept in dire need of a better script.

Too much Noise

"Hide your Noise" is what the characters keep telling each other, shorthand for encouraging one another to use quasi-meditation techniques to disguise their thoughts. Holland's character chooses to practice this verbal interruptus by repeating "I am Todd Hewitt" to himself over and over again. If nothing else, Chaos Walking might set the all-time record for most oft-repeated character name, and will likely hold it for many years as long as Hollywood never gets around to making a Groot spinoff movie.

The Noise device is rife with possibility, because it gives the audience a unique chance to read both a character's outward-facing words and inward-facing thoughts simultaneously. For instance, when Todd meets Viola for the first time, his thoughts say: "Never seen a girl before. You're pretty. Yellow hair," which is a good amount of exposition in such a quick span of time.

Residents of the planet use the Noise to manipulate each other: when the Mayor is talking to Todd's father, he conjures up a memory of Todd as a baby, to yank at the heartstrings; another time, Todd imagines an enormous snake that scares off a potential threat (Nick Jonas, in a role so insignificant you wonder why he took it). When Todd kills a creature, roasts and begins eating it, his thoughts say "I wish I could remember which color scales mean poisonous? Probably doesn't matter once you cook it." As he chews, we see him imagining himself choking, then he offers a piece to Viola — who has just witnessed the entire internal exchange.

As tantalizing and full of promise as all this can be, after an hour or so the Noise is so exhausting that you understand why it's driving everyone on this planet mad. You're also reminded the movie is a work of fiction, because not a single character's thoughts reveal a song stuck in their head. No "Kokomo," no "Copacabana," not even a "Baby Shark."

Getting wet on set

Beyond the gimmick, this is essentially a film about two characters with zero chemistry trying to get to a place a third character we barely knew told them to go for very vague reasons, while a "villain" who isn't terribly villainous pursues them through the woods for reasons that are also quite vague. No amount of window dressing can cover up those bare bones.

The characters don't fare much better. There's a nonsensical preacher (played by David Oyelowo from Selma) who spends the entire movie riding around on horseback with a crazed look in his eyes, screaming quasi-religious, fortune cookie non-sequiturs like: "I have been shown a river that is the water of life." All the while, he's trying to kill people — or is it he himself who wants to be killed? — for some peripherally-explained greater good. 

Holland's Todd is thin, and Ridley's Viola is thinner. If you ask anyone who has seen the movie to describe either character, they'd likely give you a list of the actors' personality traits instead — a sign the stars didn't have much to work with and tried to fill the void instead with their considerable charms. Since the little we do learn about these characters is revealed through thoughts rather than words, there are very few meaty scenes where the actors get to exchange meaningful dialogue.

Remember Liman's revolutionary, kinetic camera work on Bourne? Remember the sexy fun of Mr. and Mrs. Smith or the laugh-out-loud thrills of Edge of Tomorrow? You'd never know this film is directed by the same person. Something in this story grabbed his considerable attention once, but that excitement seems to have vanished somewhere between "action" and "cut."

Looking for some mind-provoking science fiction? Look, well... pretty much anywhere else. The "planet" looks and acts exactly like Earth in every significant way. There are woods, rivers, horses, the people live in shacks — aside from the occasional CGI insect, it might as well be set in Oregon. When we do glimpse the inside of a spaceship, there's nothing in there that hasn't been seen in a few dozen other movies, and as for the Spackle? Well, let's just say they spend just enough time onscreen to be jealous of Nick Jonas.

It's a sad fate to befall Holland, Ridley and Liman, three great tastes that apparently just don't taste great together. The movie arrives in theaters burdened by the weight of rumors regarding reshoots and delays, and watching the finished film you can imagine the screenwriters' confused thoughts as they rejiggered plot points again and again, trying to shuffle events so they make better sense. The Noise, it seems, won the battle.

By the third act, the gimmick has worn thin and the movie doesn't have a leg left to stand on. People are still running through the woods, secrets are still being revealed that you figured out half an hour ago, and it's more like Chaos Limping across the finish line.