he long delayed adaption of the first novel in Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy has finally arrived and it has been a bumpy ride to say the least. Years since the cameras started rolling on the Doug Liman directed feature, troubled test screenings and extensive reshoots have cast a looming shadow over the film’s ever-shifting release date and left plans to adapt the latter two books in the sci-fi trilogy in suspended animation.

Despite these setbacks, Chaos Walking has embraced the title of the sci-fi trilogy as its own (ditching the novel’s wordier title of “The Knife of Never Letting Go”) meaning Liman’s adaptation arrives with franchise ambition stamped all over its dusty, shelf-ridden face. However, whatever ambition may have existed during filming back in 2017 only faintly shines through in the final product, which is a largely low-energy, middle-of-the-road affair despite not being the train-wreck some pinned it to be.

Set in the near future where humanity has escaped to a new world in search of a better life, hopes are dashed by the presence of an invisible entity called ‘the Noise’ that has infected the planet and caused the thoughts of men to physically project above their head. Born into this strange new world, Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland), a boy on the cusp of manhood, lives amongst the last all-male surviving settlers in Prentisstown, a small-riverside settlement that serves as the last bastion for mankind.

Fans of Ness’ acclaimed novel always knew it was going to be a challenge adapting a book where characters are constantly projecting their thoughts into a film. Yet, bringing the Noise to life is one of the things Chaos Walking does surprisingly well. More than just a neat visual trick, seeing Todd’s thoughts swirling around his head like a shimmer of light endears his journey of self-discovery and provides a welcome alternative to the overbearing first-person narration that plagues most YA adaptations.

Where the film falters is that, for what is essentially one big chase story, Chaos Walking never bursts to life like the images coming out of its protagonist’s Noise-altered head. The film condenses an almost 500 page book into not quite 100 minutes (minus end credits) of running time (literally). When Todd meets a surviving female outside Prentisstown, Viola (Daisy Ridley), and the two go on the run, Chaos Walking finally shifts into gear but the journey is almost half-over at that point and the film fails to recreate the sense of urgency that was so effectively developed in the book.

The disconnect between the film and the novel is further exacerbated by some major story changes that will likely frustrate fans. Firstly, in typical YA fashion, the romantic sparks between Viola and Todd have been unnecessarily amplified. Feelings which were subtly developed throughout the course of the novel, born out of mutual respect for each other and the desperation of their situation, have been reduced in the film to a schoolyard crush Todd bears for Viola. While it’s hardly surprising for a $100 million dollar feature to try and corner the lucrative teen market, it’s disappointing that the filmmakers did not have enough faith in the story to let their relationship develop naturally.

Secondly, beloved dog companion, Manchee, has largely been sidelined in favour of Todd and Viola’s relationship. Again, hardly surprising, but as strong and memorable presence in the book, Manchee is often forgotten about for long swathes of the film and never feels as crucial to the story as he did on the page.

Finally, and likely the biggest point of ire for fans, is the completely revised third act, which loses the novel’s potent subtext of religious fanaticism for a more generic, sequel-setting finale. Failing to develop Mads Mikkelsen’s villain, Mayor Prentiss, beyond anything more than an imposing psychical presence, his motivations remain frustrating oblique throughout the film and the abrupt ending will prove unsatisfying to fans of the book and bewildering to newcomers.

It’s a shame as Chaos Walking has sparks of inspiration that emanate off the screen like strands of Noise telling fans that things could be worse. It nails the novel’s trickiest element of bringing the Noise to life and features a brooding world that doesn’t shy away from the darker elements of human nature. But at its root it fails to develop a strong enough story to satisfy fans of the book nor make it accessible enough for newcomers to engage with. Given its troubled production history, the fact that Chaos Walking is watchable is a minor success but it had the potential to be so much more.

Mar 18, 2021

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