Adapting the novel The Knife of Never Letting Go into the film Chaos Walking (2021) was always going to be a challenge. The protagonist is incredibly weak in the novel, and that doesn’t translate easily into a sympathetic movie character. The novel also features a phenomena called the ‘Noise’ where male thoughts are externalised, and represented graphically by using stylised text. In the film ‘Noise’ is visualised as a kind of shimmer or Aurora Borealis around a person’s head (a flame in the case of the Preacher).
In the novel Todd is thirteen, but in the film he’s a man. The script does not make allowances for this. To compensate for such a weak protagonist there’s a ridiculous fight scene with a water creature that’s been inserted into the script to make Todd more credible.
The ‘Noise’ works better as an idea in the novel than as a literal effect in the film. It’s intrusive and it distracts from enjoying the performances. The film really needed its own solution. I think, making it an audio-only echo effect without the visuals would have been better. As it stands, the main character and the star of the film is the ‘Noise’. It could have done with something less obvious, something more tangental and poetic.
Novels can incorporate big ideas with plotted action in ways that films are unable, because they work differently. A novel has tens of thousands of words to get its points across. Chaos Walking has 109 minutes. This is the classic challenge faced by big concept action films.
Ideas need time to be explored. They have to be treated in a nuanced way otherwise they seem crass. Action, on the other hand, is immediate and mindless. It’s tricky mixing the two. One solution is to prioritise one over the other, and to change the pace when they switch. Another cinematic solution is to visually allude to the big ideas without getting into the trap of actually explaining them. The end of Planet of the Apes (1968) is a classic example of this.
There’s so much stuff to shoehorn from the novel into the script. It doesn’t have time to deal with the issues or the pace to be a decent action film. The problem here is that the script has interpreted the novel too literally.
It’s a shame really because, apart from the imposing ‘Noise’ visuals, the rest of the CGI is excellent. The acting from Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley is great, even if the script doesn’t give them anywhere to take their characters. They don’t develop a romantic relationship or a classic buddy movie friendship. Because of this, their scenes together fall flat and there is little for the audience to invest in.
It gets worse at the end. The climactic action sequences are over so fast that they don’t have the cathartic impact they deserve. The final scene is engineered to lead into a sequel. It wants the audience to buy into the next film, but it doesn’t give us anything to buy into emotionally in this one.
I was entertained, but it’s underwhelming. The story isn’t satisfying because so much of it has been concocted as a teaser (like the encounter with the alien Spackle) or self-sabotaged (by deliberately holding back on character development and saving material for a sequel). The critical reception has been largely negative and its rating on Rotten Tomatoes is 22%. The script’s focus on acting as a setup for further films is infuriating because a sequel looks unlikely to go ahead. With the actors hobbled by the script, the overbearing ‘Noise’ becomes the films defining element, and that’s unfortunate because it’s annoying.
The film cost $85M and it was quoted as being ‘unreleasable’. After $15M of extensive reshoots (taking the production cost up to $100M), the film made $17M at the box office. This is one of those ‘production hell’ films that feels like a missed opportunity.