“And if my thought-dreams could be seen,” a wise man named Bob Dylan once said, “they’d probably put my head in a guillotine.” Chaos Walking, an adaptation of Patrick Ness’s young-adult trilogy about a planet where one’s private hopes and fears become public audiovisual transmissions, cribs the sentiment from that Dylan couplet — though, to be fair, it does not chop off a single person’s head. Characters are shot, beaten, tortured, drowned, chased, burned, pushed into an abyss, scratched, and shamed, but no gets the falling blade. What happens to the cast of Doug Liman’s movie version, however, is far worse than any of that. They end up finding themselves stuck in an overcooked 22-pound cinematic turkey, a genuine schlockbuster, a cosmic flop. The guillotine would have been quick and merciful. An association with this misfire will be on their résumés and their IMDb pages and, likely, their consciences for a long, long, long time. (It hits theaters today. Pray it goes away soon.)
Tackling only the first book of the series, The Knife of Never Letting Go — though “suffocating” or “smothering” might be more apt verbs here — Lionsgate’s high-concept sci-fi lit-fail lays out the basics right away: In the near future, humanity has left Earth for another life-sustaining planet several light-years away. It was already populated by an indigenous population known as the Spackle, however, who were largely wiped out by the colonizers quicker than you could say “manifest destiny.” But the natives apparently released a virus that caused a mutation among the visiting male populace, in which the mental chatter inside their heads (“the Noise”) is broadcast out loud as red and blue-gray smoke swirls around their heads. Occasionally, visual images pop up in these tiny cerebral storm clouds — lightning flashes of memories, or vague impressions that quickly fade away. (We can neither confirm nor deny that some of these snippets may subliminally feature actors slipping out of character and angrily firing their agents.)
The germ warfare somehow didn’t affect women. Unfortunately, this did not stop the female of the species living in the new-world settlement of Prentisstown from being slaughtered. At least, that’s what Todd (Tom Holland), one of the young men who call this neo-frontier village home, has been told all of his life. The war, and the victory, and all of those deaths happened when he was but a child. He farms alongside his adoptive dads, Ben (Demián Bichir) and Cillian (Kurt Sutter), though he looks up to the town’s strong, stoic, fur-coat-rockin’ mayor (Mads Mikkelsen) as more of an aspirational role model. Then, the news hits town that a ship has crashed on to the planet. Not only that, but the only survivor may possess XX chromosomes, which leads to the immortal line: “It’s a girl — a space girl!!!”
Ah, yes, the space girl: She is Viola (Daisy Ridley). Having spent many decades trying to get to the new world with her parents (you age slower while traveling throughout the stars, yadda yadda yadda), this young-looking woman is scared, hiding, and in need of safe haven. The mayor wants her found immediately, no questions asked. As for Todd, well, he can’t mask how gosh-darn pretty he thinks she looks or his kissy-time wishes around her, which means we’re treated to endless scenes that replay the thinking-aloud equivalent of having-to-walk-to-the-class-blackboard-with-a-boner scenario.
No time for that, my dude, sorry: The posse is on your tails. You have rivers to get dunked in and extraterrestrials to tussle with and narrow escapes to make and miles to go before you sleep. And as certain things come to light, Todd begins to wonder if maybe the stories he’s heard all his life — about how they were the last settlement standing and it was the aliens who were responsible for the ongoing noisy, intergalactic sausage party happening around him — were some tall tales attached to a whole other agenda involving religious zealotry, old-school misogyny, and the evil that, y’know, men do.
Look, credit where credit is due: The people behind this ramshackle attempt at starting a new YA screen franchise certainly got the “chaos” part right. There is so much sound and fury and static, so many booms and pings and pows, and so little coherence to any of it, that it all just sort of listlessly collides with little to no friction at all. Anyone who’s done time on a movie set will tell you that getting a finished film out of the process, much less something good, always feels like a minor miracle. But the transformation of Ness’s world building and storytelling into so much strolling confusion feels particularly messy and off-the-mark even by the loosest of standards.
And you can’t blame the pedigree: Liman has done wonders with high-concept, FX-heavy science fiction/action projects before (we still contend that Edge of Tomorrow is a low-key multiplex masterpiece). Ness helped pen the adaptation himself, or at least is one of the few credited writers on it; everyone from Charlie Kaufman to John Lee Hancock (The Little Things) apparently took turns contributing to drafts. And while the cast feels like it may have been assembled via Mad Libs (name another movie featuring Mikkelsen, Cynthia Erivo, Nick Jonas, David Oyelowo, and the showrunner for Sons of Anarchy), you couldn’t have asked for more compelling young leads than Holland and Ridley. The absolute lack of even a hint of chemistry between them, however, is stunning. Chaos Walking doesn’t even get to the level of high camp, where pleasure is found in the sheer badness of it all. It’s a movie that succeeds in one thing, and one thing alone: It proves that you can subject viewers to two hours of watching characters project their inner monologues onto a soundtrack and then wonder aloud, “What the hell were the people behind this thinking?!?”