Some movies should firmly embrace their innate silliness. The evocatively titled science-fiction film Chaos Walking, set on a planet where the human settlers can all hear — and sometimes see — each other’s thoughts, has the kind of premise that sounds intriguing on paper (and before it was a movie it was indeed a best-selling novel by Patrick Ness with the even more evocative title The Knife of Never Letting Go). But once transferred to the screen, this idea likely presented all sorts of problems. Shot in 2017, Doug Liman’s picture has been stuck in reshoot-and-postproduction limbo for some time, presumably because the filmmakers struggled with how best to render the characters’ thoughts (which sounds like something they should have maybe figured out before making a movie about, you know, people who can hear and see each other’s thoughts). The end result is neither here nor there, a muttery mess in which characters ceaselessly ruminate in voice-over, accompanied by wispy purple clouds of thought, while enacting a thoroughly generic Western scenario. You keep waiting for that intriguingly goofy setup to pay off in some meaningful, exciting way. You keep hoping a giant thought bubble will fly out of the bushes and whack someone over the head.
Alas, no such luck. Chaos Walking is set in the gritty frontier town of Prentisstown, on a planet called “New World,” where our teenage hero, Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland), works overtime to hide his thoughts from others by obsessively repeating the words “My name is Todd Hewitt” to himself over and over again. For this, he’s bullied mercilessly by the townspeople, especially Davy (Nick Jonas), the jagoff son of sinister, scheming self-declared mayor David Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen).
There are no women in Prentisstown (and we do eventually find out the chilling reason why). But one day, out of the sky crash-lands Viola (Daisy Ridley), part of an approaching wave of new human settlers. Kindly Todd and his two adoptive fathers, Ben and Cillian (Demian Bichir and Kurt Sutter, both wasted), protect Viola from the rest of the men, and eventually Todd agrees to take her to a distant settlement called Farbranch. During their journey, the whole hearing-people’s-thoughts thing pays some dividends. Viola knows what Todd is thinking, which means that his overactive teenage desires regularly embarrass him in front of this beautiful space refugee. But she’s reliant on this fundamentally decent kid for her survival, so the two come to depend on each other.
There’s a touching idea in Todd’s recounting of his name as a way of keeping his runaway thoughts in check. On one level, I could certainly identify with the paralysis and anxiety that comes from trying to control obsessive thought patterns. (And Ness is also the author of The Rest of Us Just Live Here, the rare YA adventure book with a hero who has OCD.) There’s something exciting about this character, and Holland, who proved his acting chops with last year’s otherwise-not-very-good The Devil All the Time, isn’t a bad choice to play him. But that’s also why it’s frustrating that Chaos Walking doesn’t do more with its conceit. There is so much potential here for weirdness, creativity, terror — something to distinguish the film from your run-of-the-mill sci-fi adventure or glum pseudo-Western scenario.
And yes, there’s potential for humor, too. Overheard thoughts can often alienate viewers in mainstream movies. Maybe that’s why the idea works best in comedies: Hearing someone’s thoughts tends to make us uneasy, and it can be hard to retrofit such an inherently uncool idea into an ostensibly bad-ass space adventure or war drama or whatever. Many of the battles waged over Terrence Malick’s filmography, for example, ultimately boil down to how viewers viscerally respond to the snatches of whispered thoughts he likes to lay over his lovely images: Some of us are moved greatly, others start immediately snickering.
That’s why Liman isn’t actually a bad choice for this material. He is, after all, the credited director on Edge of Tomorrow, a sci-fi flick that took another offbeat idea — Independence Day meets Groundhog Day, with Tom Cruise dying over and over again and coming back to life on the same day — and turned it into one of the most inspiring action movies of the past decade. Edge of Tomorrow wasn’t a comedy, but it was very funny at times, leaning into the ridiculousness of its story. (It also didn’t make a ton of money, and struggled through reshoots and rewrites, so maybe Hollywood learned the wrong lesson from it.) Chaos Walking retains a tiny bit of its comic spirit, but one does get the sense that maybe, in some distant rough cut or interim screenplay draft, it was a much funnier, more engaging picture. Instead, what we now have is a movie that seems determined to run away from itself.