Scan your memory banks and run through the legions of YA sci-fi adaptations that have made it to the screen. Try and conjure up a sliding scale, say “Hunger Games” to “The Giver” or “Ender’s Game” or “City of Ember” or the later “Divergents” or “Maze Runners” and on and on.
I was stunned, during the middle of Hollywood’s “Find me the next ‘Hunger Games'” hunt, at how many were more or less unwatchable, and how all of them were forgettable.
“Chaos Walking,” based on a Patrick Ness novel, directed by Doug Liman (“Edge of Tomorrow”), finished and labeled “unreleaseable,” reshot by Fede Álvarez (“Don’t Breathe”) is now perfectly watchable, if doomed to be forgettable.
Whatever it began life as it arrives as a parable on toxic masculinity, set as it is in a culture where men can’t keep themselves from “saying the silent part out loud.” That’s topical, damning, and in the film (and source novel’s) conceits, kind of funny.
Casting Spider Man-boy Tom Holland makes this work. As a babbling 20ish “settler” on “New World,” a planet generations removed from Earth (a 64 year journey away), Holland plays a variation of his chatty, insecure but good-hearted Peter Parker, a guy who helps the sole survivor of a “second wave” colonial scout ship escape The Patriarchy.
As she’s played by Daisy Ridley of the recent “Star Wars” trilogy, there’s a just hint here and there that maybe she could that on her own.
Holland is “Todd Hewitt,” a name he repeats in his head ad nauseum as a way to “control the noise.” That’s what they call the errant thoughts that every man there spews into the ether. A clever touch? The “thoughts” look like a vaping chain-smoker, with flashbacks and visualizations of what might be projected onto them. The planet causes this.
“Control your noise” well enough and you can keep “secrets,” which no man on this planet can manage all that well. Control it and you can project threats — giant snakes — or traps (imagined fences springing up around a quarry) into the minds of your foes.
Todd is the youngest lad in Prentiss Town, named for the smooth-talking, mind-controlling Mayor (Mads Mikkelsen). The Mayor keeps their history, tells and retells the story of how the native inhabitants of the planet “murdered all the women.”
But when a scout ship crash lands near Todd and the farm of his two dads (Demián Bichir, Kurt Sutter) who raised him, and this young woman (Ridley) is the sole survivor, the mayor can’t hide his intentions.
Todd and the young woman must flee.
The Québec locations give this world of entropy a 19th century Pacific Northwest as it was first being settled feel. It’s a world of farming and fur hunting and “be a man,” as Todd has to remind himself constantly. It looks lived-in, a society that has devolved as its technology broke or the batteries gave out, back on horseback because the ark they arrived on brought them (and dogs like Todd’s Toto-ish Manchee) along with the people and Big Plans.
The core plot elements are cut-and-paste YA dystopia — a quest with villains in hot pursuit, chased on horseback, shot at, rivers to cross and a goal line that seems to move further away despite the best efforts of our intrepid young heroes.
But they get maximum mileage out of the core gimmick, the fact that men can’t hide their thoughts from anyone, and women can. Holland’s Todd thinks/speaks “yellow hair, pretty,” and blurts out “Please ignore that” to “the girl” who has never been on terra firma, born on the space ark that brought her here.
“The civilizing influence of women” may be a trite, tired trope, but Todd embodies this and is as prone to violence as every other man there.
And the villains are first rate. Mikkelsen has a simmering menace, and David Olyelowo, who once played Martin Luther King Jr. (“Selma”) takes sexist religion to its violent, patriarchal extreme — madness — as “The Preacher,” a man expecting “retribution” for the lives they’ve lived, the lies they tell and the crimes that must have been part of that.
No, you won’t remember this a year from now — just the vapor-thoughts effect, the jokey tone that floats around that and the heroes and villains. But how much of “The Hunger Games” sticks in the memory after four films? Heroes, villains, the train and a bow and arrow? Maybe?
MPA Rating:PG-13 for violence and language
Cast: Tom Holland, Daisy Ridley, David Oyelowo, Demián Bichir, Nick Jonas, Cynthia Erivo and Mads Mikkelsen
Credits: Directed by Doug Liman, script by Patrick Ness and Christopher Ford, based on a novel by Patrick Ness. A Lionsgate release.
Running time: 1:49