Director Doug Liman spun an exceedingly high-concept science-fiction premise into narrative gold with "Edge of Tomorrow," but in "Chaos Walking," the concept is all there is.
There's no shortage of imaginative sci-fi details or of talented actors on-hand, but the film boils down to characters we barely get to know chasing each other and yelling. That it hardly matters who's being chased or what, exactly, is being yelled -- mostly "Stop her!" and "AAAUUUGGGHHH!" -- is just part of the trouble here.
Patrick Ness and Christopher Ford adapt Ness' novel "The Knife of Never Letting Go," about future human colonists living on a planet where human thoughts can be seen and heard by others. It's a phenomenon known as "Noise," and noise of every kind is definitely the dominant motif of the screen version.
The year is 2257, the planet is New World, and Todd (Tom Holland) lives on a farm outside of a town where, he's been told, the women were all wiped out by an alien species. One of those women was Todd's mother, and now he is being raised by Ben (Demián Bichir) and Cillian (Kurt Sutter), both doing their best to keep out of the way of the Mayor (Mads Mikkelsen), who rules over the territory. (Ben and Cillian share a bed, but if their relationship is sexual or social or situational, the film has no interest in exploring it. Nor does it delve into other pairings taking place in the all-male town.)
One day, a pod bearing more colonists crashes, and the only survivor is Viola (Daisy Ridley). She wants nothing more than to contact her ship; if they don't hear from her, the assumption will be that the pod was lost, and she'll be stuck on New World forever. The Mayor wants to stop her, and he uses his Noise to convince the populace that her ship is coming to destroy them all. As it turns out, the Mayor's real concern is that women don't create Noise, giving them an advantage on this planet.
Liman and his crew do their best to take the concept of Noise from the page to the screen, illustrating it as a cloud around the man's head that offers the sights and sounds of someone's thoughts, but the script keeps upping the stakes of how people can manipulate their Noise to control others. By the end of the movie, most of the main characters are X-Men when it comes to battling each other with their minds.
And even something as conceptual and different as Noise can only have so much impact when the story offers so little beyond chasing and being chased. "Chaos Walking" is a sci-fi Western hybrid - mixing agrarian communities and interstellar travel - so there's a lot of dudes on horseback shooting pew-pew laser rifles, to the accompaniment of a bombastically prosaic score by Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts.
With all the characters being so poorly fleshed-out and yoked to the grinding gears of the plot, this film wastes a staggering amount of talent. Besides Holland, Ridley, Mikkelsen, Bechir, and Sutter, the film vastly underutilizes Nick Jonas, Cynthia Erivo, and Ray McKinnon; David Oyelowo, at least, gets to broaden his gallery of characters with the fanatical and misogynist Preacher, who equates womanhood with weakness, and whose Noise is presented as an increasing conflagration of flames floating around his head. It's all maybe a bit much, but in a film so otherwise unengaging, his scenery-chewing offers a respite.
There's a stink of the YA-future-dystopia permeating "Chaos Walking," and if the plan is to adapt the subsequent books in Ness' series, here's hoping any future installments go in a vastly different, substantive, and pointed direction. As it is, there's no reason to visit this new world.
"Chaos Walking" opens in theaters March 5.