dir: Doug Liman
Well, that was a waste of time, money and three books.
Chaos Walking is the name of the YA trilogy. I know this because I read the books with my daughter when she was at that pre-tween stage where childish stories were too childish for her and YA stuff was too grown up. We were big fans of Patrick Ness, whose other book A Monster Calls has also been adapted into a movie, far more successfully than this.
The first book of the Chaos Walking trilogy is called The Knife of Never Letting Go. The Knife of Never Letting Go is a far cooler title than Chaos Walking. The geniuses who squandered hundreds of millions on this, you get the feeling way pre-pandemic, had the highest of high hopes that this could become another massive YA franchise, along the lines of Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner.
Geez, talk about aiming low. In a lot of ways, because the books aren’t set on Earth, it’s the hardest sell of all of them, not only because it’s fairly serious science fiction, but because a lot of other elements involving toxic masculinity, genocidal misogyny, colonialism and religious fundamentalism.
You can really see how they started out, and how they murdered the story by deciding to cut their losses and run. It reminds me of when Peter Jackson went to the despicable Weinstein brothers, and said “give me money to make the Lord of the Rings trilogy”, and they said “Sure, but it has to be one movie.” Well, those movies turned out okay, and half the Weinsteins are in jail forever, and the other half shouldn’t be allowed to ever produce a movie again, so I think the message is: Stop enabling sadistic monsters, and don’t turn trilogies into single movies.
It probably was never going to work, though for much of this movie, I watched it thinking, hm, they haven’t fucked it up too much yet. But then it also seemed deeply wrong to have Tom Holland playing the lead character, since Todd Hewitt is meant to be quite young, like 13 I think at the beginning of the saga.
I guess Holland playing a teenager in Spider-Man movies was acceptable way back then, but he’s 24 now, and doesn’t really look 13.
It is really obvious to me that the movie was made a certain way at first, and then they decided to discard everything that was meant to broaden the story, and set it up for the next chapter, and just cap it off right here, because the last part of the movie is clearly studio-mandated reshoots. As such, whatever it sets up ends up being wasted entirely.
Todd is meant to be the only boy in this town, born just after something that happened that resulted in the deaths of all the women. This town is not on Earth. It is on another planet, with a couple of suns, and the day never seems to end. Also, everyone who walks around has their thoughts being broadcast. In the book this was characterised as sound, hence the term Noise to describe it: all the men’s thoughts being broadcast all the time, audible to anyone around them. The film, being a visual medium, they decided to depict Noise visually, as in, for our benefit, men’s Noise is images, wispy thoughts made into images that sometimes float around their heads.
This isn’t entirely a terrible idea. It kinda worked. Took me a while to wrap my head around it, but it’s not entirely a horrible idea.
The town has a preacher, just like in the book. He’s called Aaron (David Oyelowo). He is often wreathed in flames. Not actual flames, it’s just that I guess because he’s obsessed with the cleansing fires of, I dunno, purity or something, his Noise is full of fire. David Oyelowo is a phenomenal actor. Chaos Walking wastes him entirely. Aaron as an antagonist for Todd was terrifying (and very irritating) in the book. He taunts and torments Todd over the course of the story, for his own demented reasons. He’s meant to be kinda like the lunatic pseudo-preacher Robert Mitchum plays in the superb Night of the Hunter who chases the children for most of their nightmare journey.
Here, he’s pretty much just a random guy that pops up randomly and yells stuff at Todd, and the flick gives no reasons as to why. He does look cool wreathed in flames, though, so I guess that’s something.
The real villain of the piece, and all three books, is Mayor Prentiss (the almost always awesome Mads Mikkelsen), who is really a monstrous piece of work. It took me a while to wrap my head around Mads as the Mayor, mostly because the books were written with such a Western / American frontier aesthetic that it kinda jingled and jangled in my head that he wasn’t, I dunno, a tightly controlled and coiled Henry Fonda / John Wayne / Clint Eastwood type. But Mads is so good, usually, that I was willing to go along with him.
Todd is meant to be a fairly good-hearted boy, used to a hardscrabble existence, fairly ignorant but not stupid (though he is illiterate). He has two dads, Ben and Cillian (Demian Bichir and Kurt Sutter), and they’re both pretty tough on him, but they care about him dearly. They don’t really emphasise it that much, but Ben and Cillian are clearly a couple, in the book and in the movie, and neither are really biologically related to Todd.
It’s not going to matter, because the characters aren’t really developed that much, and anything I knew or cared about that Ben and Cillian did to protect Todd only mattered because of the books. In the movie, it’s not really clear why anyone does anything.
Some kind of craft lands near their town, and on it is a girl, that Todd finds. He’s never seen a girl before. He notices straight away that she has no Noise, but that she can clearly see his, and is appalled by it.
Viola (Daisy Ridley) is blonde, for some reason. Eventually she comes to somewhat trust Todd and they are on the run, trying to survive, as the Mayor and his goons try to, I dunno, stop the girl from doing something.
For the most part, the movie follows the book, as the pair travel to Farbranch, a town nearby that Todd didn’t know existed, with the hope that they can reach some communication device and contact a ship that will soon be in orbit with thousands more colonists on it. Todd mentions that, during their travels, there is an indigenous population on the planet, called the Spackle, that he hates because they killed all the women in his town, including his mum.
Suffice to say that other than one encounter with a Spackle that was minding their own business, they play no other part in the movie, which is just staggering. I mean, part of me is glad, because the sheer lengths these vile humans go to enslave, torment and murder the Spackle in the books would be pretty confronting to watch. But it’s also where most of the meaning in the books come from, especially when, considering the story is all about colonialism and what invaders usually do to indigenous populations, and how it was a horror and a deep historical wrong centuries ago, and will still be a horrific thing to do and justify centuries from now.
None of that is here, though. The only reason the people that put this movie together think anyone would want to watch this movie is because Spider-Man and Rey Skywalker are in it, doing whatever, and that’s enough.
When the pair eventually get to Farbranch, and there are other humans there, and women as well, it begins the revelation that was so shocking to Todd in the book, and is just a cinematic shrug of the shoulders here. Nothing really matters in this flick, other than Todd making goo-goo eyes at Viola, and Viola, well, I have no idea what she’s doing here.
In the end, everything is wrapped up in the neatest of packages, so neatly in fact that even if you thought maybe they could make the next two flicks, you’d probably say “no thanks”.
The second book The Ask and the Answer mostly set in a town called Haven has the Mayor storming across this world with an army of zealots, and Todd doing more horrible things on the path to self-realisation, as certain people fight against him and his men, sometimes doing stuff through terrorism even worse than the villains, which raises its own set of moral quandaries, and the Spackle play a greater part as well, with Todd having to confront the reality of his actions, and his complicated relationship with Viola, Mistress Coyle, the Mayor, Davy (the mayor’s son, here improbably played by Nick Jonas), none of which we’re ever going to see.
Monsters of Men, well, we’re never going to see that either.
Well, we got one sixth of the story. It’s kinda like the movie they made of the Phillip Pullman book Northern Lights, which they turned into The Golden Compass, and squandered another opportunity to tell a great story. At least the His Dark Materials trilogy got a HBO series to tell the rest of the story. This, well, a treatment of a story done this poorly, which lost hundreds of millions of dollars, independent of the pandemic, mostly because of the timidity of the producers, it’s just a waste of people, time, money and talent.
And a waste of a pretty good set of books. I’m sure Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley will be okay. I feel bad for Patrick Ness. To write such a good, solid, complex story, and to have it turned into a forgotten-as-you’re-consuming-it Maccas Happy Meal is a fucking travesty. That’s got to hurt, and I don’t care how much they paid for the rights.
I have already expended more energy, more thought and more sorrow in writing about this than any of the people involved. They have already probably forgotten about it, moved onto their next projects, promoting the next installment of some other franchise, of the next adaptation, reboot, retread, remake, restart. Gone, forgotten, what’s next?
But I’ll remember. The sheer shame of it all, such shattering mediocrity. I’ll remember.
5 times that’s not a Knife of Never Letting Go, now, THIS is a Knife of Never Letting Go out of 10
“I’m the last boy in the world. Someday, I’ll be the only one left. I’ll just be all alone. I wonder if you can actually die from boredom.” – try watching this flick, then get back to me - Chaos Walking