In August 2020, Disney took the opportunity to unload The New Mutants, an X-Men spinoff that was shot back in 2017, but repeatedly delayed and shelved until it emerged as an unceremonious test balloon for the mid-pandemic theatrical experience. Now that movie’s young-adult classmate is following suit.
Chaos Walking, a science fiction thriller that also started production in 2017, is finally reaching movie theaters after several years’ worth of release-date delays — and reshoots, which were rumored for New Mutants, but didn’t actually happen. The film has been dithering in post-production for so long that director Doug Liman lapped his own movie; his follow-up project Locked Down was conceived, set, and shot during the pandemic, but still made it to audiences two months before Chaos Walking.
As it happens, “Chaos Walking” is a pretty appropriate title for almost any Doug Liman movie. He seems to specialize in chaotic, troubled productions that somehow keep moving, and occasionally become beloved hits. His best work has a distinct, sometimes almost irritable sense of urgency, and his range of projects makes him hard to pin down. Scaling up from his smaller-scale comedies Swingers and Go, he made The Bourne Identity, which went through rewrites, reshoots, and studio interference, only to emerge as a major franchise-starter. He followed up with Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which went way over budget before becoming a smash, though not a very good one. Then, just in time to undermine his newfound box-office clout, he directed the hokey science fiction romance Jumper, with young Star Wars actor Hayden Christensen in the lead role. He repeats that trick with Chaos Walking, which superficially resembles Jumper.
Comparing Chaos Walking to both Jumper and The New Mutants may sound like an outright condemnation. Yet in classic unpredictable Liman fashion, this jumbled and seemingly truncated adaptation of the first book in a YA trilogy is nonetheless likable, entertaining science fiction. It’s saddled with a concept that’s murderously difficult to visualize: On a distant planet, hundreds of years in the future, the thoughts of every human male are broadcast for anyone to hear and see. This can include images, dreams, and memories, which swirl around the menfolks’ heads like an effects-haze version of a cartoon thought bubble. It’s called The Noise, as in “Hide your Noise!”, a regular refrain. Some men are better at keeping their thoughts quiet than others, but for everyone, it’s clearly an ongoing struggle.
What about the women? As far as Todd (Tom Holland) knows, there aren’t any. He’s part of a settlement of Earth refugees, too young to remember what elders like the Mayor (Mads Mikkelsen) consider the defining event of their lives. After making their homes on this new planet, the colony’s women were all killed by mysterious native beings dubbed the Spackle. This tale gets another workout when Viola (Star Wars sequel-series lead Daisy Ridley) crashlands in a scout ship, hoping to find a thriving community to welcome a larger ship of ex-Earthers, trailing her arrival. Instead, she’s beset with the innermost thoughts of every man she meets, while her own “Noise” remains quiet and guarded. The movie only lightly touches upon the utter horror this must represent to Viola, perhaps because it’s not that different from many other, less fantastical situations where women are exposed to men’s feelings and opinions against their will.
For example: Chaos Walking centers on two equally interesting characters, but the movie’s point of view sticks closely to Todd’s, as he struggles to contain his fascination with Viola. (He’s constantly apologizing for idly wondering whether they’ll ever kiss, even as he understands how unlikely that is.) Here, the filmmakers struggle with what an inner monologue really sounds like, even as they come up with neat visuals. Most of Todd’s thoughts are ridiculously linear and clear, with minor bits of repetition and daydreams meant to provide the colorful outer limits of his brain. People’s thoughts here rarely seem to include free association or maddening fixations. (Lucky for them, no one in this colony seems to remember any songs to get stuck in their heads.) The movie is more interested in logistical challenges than anything more philosophical, as seen when Todd and Viola flee, seeking another settlement that one of Todd’s adoptive fathers (Demián Bichir) says will keep her safe. It’s hard to sneak through a forest undetected when you’re literally broadcasting your fear and uncertainty.
Chaos Walking moves briskly through all of this nonsense in Liman’s trademark rough-and-tumble style. Holland and Ridley stay close to their Disney-franchise personas: He’s gawky and sensitive, she’s scrappy and wary. But there’s a reason they were so beloved as Peter Parker and Rey, respectively, and the movie takes easy, enjoyable advantage of their charisma. This fantasy-Western of sorts is full of modest pleasures like that. The costumes by Kate Hawley (Crimson Peak and Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow, among others) mix rustic faux-frontier coziness with muted futurism. Certain world-building details are allowed to stay in the background, rather than taking on the weight of mythology. And Liman positions his actors with an intuitive feel for dramatic blocking. Though the movie’s concepts leave a lot of comic potential untapped, there is a funny moment when Todd realizes he’ll be bunking with a guy who dreams only of baseball games.
For most of Chaos Walking, it’s easy to forget that this production ran into some manner of trouble, with another director stepping in to helm substantial-sounding reshoots, reportedly after poor test screenings. The final stretch gives things away, as it becomes clear that the movie is hurtling toward an abrupt conclusion, and that certain story threads will not be picked back up. It’s difficult to tell what might have been shot, what might have been gutted, and what might have simply fallen prey to the difficulties of adapting the first book in a YA trilogy, hoping and assuming that more might follow.
But say this for a movie that technically falls in the tradition of anonymous junk like I Am Number Four and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones: This orphaned YA-fantasy story still has moments that feel like a quintessential Liman project, and not especially because of any obvious thematic preoccupations, or even an inimitable style. Instead, for much of its running time, Chaos Walking manages to sustain the feeling of anticipating a Doug Liman movie — the unpredictability of whether it will succeed against the odds, or descend into chaotic noise.
Chaos Walking opens in theaters on March 5, 2020. Before visiting any theater during the COVID-19 pandemic, Polygon recommends reading our guide to local safety precautions.