It’s easy to see what initially attracted Charlie Kaufman to Chaos Walking. The filmmaker behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and I’m Thinking of Ending Things wrote the original draft of the screenplay back in 2012, long before the movie starred two massive franchise leads in Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley. The story—based on a novel by the brilliant Patrick Ness, author of the equally brilliant A Monster Calls—takes place on a distant planet where former Earthlings have settled. A mysterious affliction causes the settlers’ thoughts to echo audibly outside their heads, giving everyone access to everyone else’s inner dialogue. To Kaufman, whose films rumble with the self-conflict of the human mind, that probably sounds like the scariest setup in the world. Just imagine what untranslatable, alienating thoughts could be spilling into the air, shattering our dream of being known on our own terms. It’d be an existential nightmare.
But Kaufman left this project years ago, and Lionsgate had his draft revised by six different writers in order to launch Chaos Walking into a YA franchise. Existential nightmares don’t make for appealing YA franchises, so the 2021 version of Chaos Walking is the safest, most literal version of the “thoughts out loud” conceit imaginable. There’s a great gag in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Earshot” where Buffy temporarily gains the ability to read minds, and while she’s listening to her friends frantically sort out their thoughts, she hears the most vapid member of the gang think a sentence before saying the exact same thing out loud. That’s how everyone thinks in Chaos Walking. The inner electrical storm of wants and fears and self-talk is conspicuously tame. When a character’s going about their day, they’re just thinking simple thoughts about their current activity; when a character’s trying to hide their thoughts, they just think of something unrelated over and over. The settlers call the thoughts-out-loud affliction The Noise, but here it’s little more than an annoying murmur.
This flaccid take on the concept is good for some laughs here and there, usually when Holland’s character is trying to squash his naughty thoughts about Ridley’s character. Hopefully audiences find that enjoyable enough, as Ridley’s transition from uncomfortable with mind-flirting to comfortable with mind-flirting is about as deep a connection as these characters will forge. Holland and Ridley are serviceable in the roles but suffer from their inability to add character to mediocre writing. They may have the charm and poise to lead a blockbuster, but Chaos Walking doesn’t make a good case for them beyond their good looks and memorization expertise.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the movie is that it sidles outside of the YA blockbuster template in its second hour. There’s a twist midway that’s supposed to really shake things up, but because the first half squanders the concept’s potential so limply, it just feels like the first time the movie is actually moving. It has something to do with the mystery of women being immune to The Noise, and it builds to an incipient allegory about how patriarchal ideologies survive and thrive. There’s even a preacher character who begs the question of how misogyny is codified into a community’s way of life. But these musings are all but abandoned when the movie’s goal shifts to sequel setup. You know how it goes.
What’s left still had a hundred-million-dollar budget, so the aliens and the action are acceptable by modern standards, and the effects team gets to have fun visualizing The Noise in recognizable ways. But for a movie about the impossibility of keeping ideas inside your head, there’s not a lot going on inside Chaos Walking’s noggin besides the potential for another Chaos Walking. It’s a shame it couldn’t see its own potential.