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Chaos Walking (2021)

Chaos Walking has been shrouded under the ominous reputation of “troubled production” from its very inception. It’s based on a 2008 YA science fiction series by Patrick Ness and has gone through writer after writer, trying to hone this story into a visual medium. At one point, Charlie Kaufman was attached as the screenwriter, and if Kaufman, the man who turned his struggle to adapt a book about flowers into a meditative and meta experience, can’t find a way to make your story work, then I doubt many other Hollywood writers can. It began filming in 2017 with director Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow) and sat on the shelf for years, with the studio execs reportedly dismissing the finished version as “un-releasable.” Fifteen million dollars in reshoots took place in 2019, helmed by Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe), and now the finished movie has been quietly dumped to theaters and on-demand markets. Chaos Walking is, indeed, chaotic, but it’s mostly dull and simplistic with a premise that feels ripe for social commentary that the movie has no interest in because it would detract from its eighteenth depiction of another forest chase.

In the future, mankind has settled on an alien world with some unexpected results. There is a strange quirk about this planet – the men are incapable of hiding their inner thoughts, which materialize in front of their heads as visuals with their narration echoing (nick-named “The Noise”). Women, for whatever reason, are unaffected. It’s been so long since another supply ship from Earth has come that life on this alien world has begun to resemble the struggles of the early terrestrial pioneers. Todd (Tom Holland) wants to impress his small town’s authority figure, Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen), and become an adult faster than he might be ready. Viola (Daisy Ridley) has made the multiple-generations trip from Earth but her spaceship crashes. Todd finds her and panics because she may very well be the only woman alive on the planet. He elects to hide her and try and reach an old technological outlet, while the Mayor leads a posse to round her up and maybe kill Viola.

Given that premise, you would think that Chaos Walking was setting itself up for some sharp, uncomfortable, and relevant social commentary about the plight of being a woman in a modern society. If Get Out was a horror story about being a black man in America, I was thinking Chaos Walking would be a horror story about being a woman in America, but I was wrong. Think about the premise, with every woman subjected to a society of men that cannot hide their unconscious objectification, their leering harassment, their distressing ulterior motives, where every man’s uncontrollable thoughts will be broadcast. It’s an empathetic and horrifying glimpse into the daily dismissal, exploitation, and condescension that woman experience. You add the extra element that women are immune and now they also become the subject of projected male resentment, that they feel judged, and this only makes the men more hostile and confrontational. Being “the last woman” also presents an obvious threat of sexual violence as well. It’s all right there, and yet Chaos Walking barely even toys with its explosive gender commentary; there’s a reason all the women are dead on the planet, but it’s not exactly revelatory, and its inclusion, at the expense of all other notable social or political commentary, makes the explanation feel more perfunctory. Why even bother having a premise that features a gender disparity if you’re not going to really say something about the treatment of women? If you think about those old movies where it’s one man on a planet entirely of women, or some similar dynamic where there is a giant gender upheaval, and they always say something about it. What would be the point of making an exception for one kind of person and then ignoring the larger implications? Well, I’ll never truly know, because Chaos Walking doesn’t seem to know either.

I can see why this premise works on the page where the reader is already able to immerse themselves in the inner thoughts of a point of view character. I’ve never read the source material but I can imagine it being like a jigsaw puzzle of first-person perspectives. It’s a little harder to translate into a visual atmosphere in a clear and meaningful way, especially when you’re limiting what it all says. As its portrayed onscreen, The Noise is often muddled and visually hard to decipher, and while it mimics the half-formed nature of thoughts (people don’t typically think in complete, declarative sentences) it’s still too abstract and confusing. The wispy visuals are opaque and glisten like sunlight in gasoline pools, which makes the imagery less easy to determine. It’s like someone made a sci-fi thriller and just ladled on extraneous visual elements but didn’t want anyone to properly decode these special effects. Sometimes the premise works, like when Todd is trying to hide his fears, like when he envisions a beat-down from a dangerous crowd, or when he purposely imagines scary imagery to spook a rival’s horse. Too often The Noise just feels exactly like that when it comes to the narrative. It’s a peculiarity that is underdeveloped and could well be forgotten. It’s such a strange experience to watch a high-concept movie where the filmmakers are seized by indifference with their high-concept. I don’t know if maybe this is a subtle acknowledgement of defeat.

There’s one character that symbolizes the futile adaptation of The Noise and that’s Reverend Aaron (David Oyelowo). He’s living in conflict with his own community and his Noise is more apocalyptic, fire and brimstone, and he views The Noise as a connection between man and God. Now that is interesting, looking at this quirk as a gift or curse from God and trying to make a spiritual understanding over why man, and only man, has been given this ability. It seems to radicalize him. At long last, here is a character with a direct and personal relationship with The Noise, the hook. How does this change his relationship with God, his sense of self, and his feeling of disconnect from being so far away from home in this alien world? Well, all of that tantalizing characterization and potential depth is cast aside. Reverend Aaron is merely a religious zealot and a boring one at that. It’s hard to determine whether he’s gone over into violent extremism or is seeking absolution, which makes him just another dangerous antagonist that appears here and there but you can’t quite square. This character could have been legitimately intriguing from the story specifics of how he would respond to drastic change, isolation, introspection, and a crisis of faith brought on by the environmental turmoil. Instead, he just becomes a secondary heavy chasing characters for vaguely unsatisfying reasons.

Chaos Walking is not a fascinating failure or a so-bad-it’s-amazing fiasco, it’s just a mediocre chase movie. It’s patterned after Westerns visually and structurally, with the frontier town being lead by a Black Hat who is chasing after the Drifter who represents a threat to the status quo. It’s not just the horses, dusty trails, vilified natives, and small-towns shootouts, Chaos Walking is very intentionally a science fiction Western, a pairing that seems to keep getting tried on by Hollywood studios like an old pair of cowboy boots they’re positive fit perfectly once long ago. As far as space Westerns go, it’s fine. The action is fine, though I grew tired of the visual mundanity of characters continuing to walk in the woods, run through the woods, and take refuge in the woods. For an alien landscape, Chaos Walking often feels frustratingly plain and unimaginative. All of these interesting science fiction asides and additions and it’s really just interested in being a second-rate space Western. The screenplay is held together as a series of rote chases. The main characters are bland and Ridley’s straw-like blonde wig gave me bad memories of Kate Mara’s bad wig from the infamous Fantastic Four reshoots. For its 110 minutes, you won’t exactly be repelled from the screen with boredom but you won’t be tempted to pay close attention either. Chaos Walking is too generic, too safe, and too derivative to be anything more than passing entertainment. I wish it was more chaotic and un-releaseable just to be more memorable and worth your time.

Nate’s Grade: C

Widows (2018)

Widows has an all-star cast, an Oscar-nominated director, and a best-selling novelist-turned screenwriter, so my expectations might have been turned up a bit too high. It follows a team of titular widows (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Dibecki) picking up the pieces in the wake of their husbands’ deaths. It seems their dearly departed spouses stole money from a local criminal who very much demands the sum returned. The women must enter into a criminal heist, using notes left behind by a dead hubby, to settle the debt and spare their lives. Widows is a higher caliber crime movie with notable texture given to a wide assortment of characters; even the villains are given small character touches to better flesh them out and feel more realized. There’s a concurrent election tying together different corrupt and criminal enterprises that widens the scope of the film into a grander scale. The characters and performances are the selling point of the movie and provide consistent entertainment. Davis (Fences) is the strong-willed linchpin of the group and I could watch her boss around people for hours. Dibecki (The Great Gatsby) has a nice turn as a trophy wife accustomed to being abused. The problem is that there might be too many characters. Rodriguez has far more significance in the first thirty minutes and then is put on ice. Likewise, Carrie Coon and Cynthia Erivo are hastily added when the plot requires something of them. That plot, adapted by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), proves to be the film’s biggest hindrance by the end. The second half plot turns seem to come from a schlockier version of this story, not the classier version we had been treated to beforehand. There are character decisions that baffle credulity and personal safety. The quality of the characters deserved a movie that could refrain from the hacky genre twists. McQueen’s precise camerawork is still alive and well and highlights tension and also moments of social commentary, like when we watch a car travel mere blocks from a rundown inner city neighborhood to a fancy gated residence. There’s a lot to like with Widows, and plenty to get excited about, but I wanted to like even more.

Nate’s Grade: B

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

It is no disservice when I say that Bad Times at the El Royale joins the ranks of the finest of Tarantino imitators. It’s packed with twists and turns that keep an audience glued to the screen and continually re-evaluating the characters that we thought we knew. Because of that dynamic the movie invites the audience into becoming more involved, dissecting the information available and waiting for the next clue or plot revelation. It turns watching the film into a game and makes the experience that much more active and thrilling.

In the summer of 1969, the El Royale hotel is in for one hell of a night. The old fashioned hotel sits on the border between Nevada and California, allowing its dwindling customer base the opportunity to choose which state they would like to stay in. A group of strangers cozy up for the night including a priest (Jeff Bridges), a chatty vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), a hopeful lounge singer (Cynthia Erivo), a skittish bellhop (Lewis Pullman), and a mysterious woman (Dakota Johnson) who happens to have a hostage in her trunk. As the night progresses and the characters uncover one another’s secrets, sometimes with deadly results, menacing cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) comes swaggering to the El Royale to reclaim by force what he feels is rightfully his.

There are Act One twists and reveals in El Royale that would have been the Act Threes of other movies. Writer/director Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, The Martian) has packed his movie full of sinister intrigue as he establishes the hotel, the main characters, and an immediate impression of each in the first 15 minutes. From there, the movie is divided into chapter titles (another Tarantino motif) where we follow different room inhabitants who get 20-minute-vignette spotlights. Once in private, the characters shed their false faces and begin to reveal who they really are, or who we think they might really be, and the movie starts to resemble Tarantino’s own hidden identity parlor game, 2015’s Hateful Eight. The vignettes begin to overlap, ending on cliffhangers and then circling back with a new character as our focal point, re-watching prior scenes but from a different perspective. Goddard’s script is wonderfully clever, layering in questions and answers and a constant desire to upend audience expectations. Even though some segments will repeat, Goddard doesn’t waste time on redundancy. A character will be seen prying loose floorboards searching for something desirable, and we never have to relive the before or after of this moment from that character’s perspective because we’ve been imparted the necessary info and can put the pieces together with the next jump. I appreciated Goddard’s faith in the intelligence of his audience. The pleasure of El Royale is watching it deftly unfold as a fun, funny, startling, appealing mystery.

The characters must also be worthy of our attention, and Goddard does fine work teasing out his colorful cast of criminals and lost souls and deepening most. Everyone has something to hide at the El Royale, and finding out his or her true intentions and motivations is part of the film’s fun. I won’t spoil any of the big surprises or which characters are really putting on a show. Despite all the many plot machinations intertwined, Goddard still finds time for his film to breathe and let the characters talk, opening themselves to one another, sometimes with the assistance of dramatic irony. Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo play the best characters and deliver the best performances. Both of them are haunted by pasts they don’t feel like sharing, both are under some element of disguise to embark on finding their happy ending, and both form a sort of bond throughout the film as kindred spirits, even if they can’t fully trust one another. Bridges has the most complicated back-story but it actually links with a very real and emotional condition: memory loss. His character is (legitimately) going through early dementia and he’s losing full control of his sense of self, occasionally blanking and forgetting who he even is and how he got where he did. For a character pretending to be someone else, there’s a cruel irony to this malady. The seven main characters aren’t all on the same level (some are more plot devices than people) but Goddard knows this, making sure his 142-minute movie spends the most time with the best of them.

The actors given the best characters are also the ones that deliver the best performances, if you can imagine that. Bridges (Hell or High Water) brings a strong sense of pathos to his memory-addled priest trying to assess his life and his choices. He seems genuine in every moment, which is a feat considering his character has his share of secrets like anyone else. Erivo is a Broadway star making her film debut here, and she steals the show with her bruised sense of optimism. She’s the heart of the movie and a proven survivor, especially from a rigged system that protects predatory men. She brings a quiet power to her character as well as a believable vulnerability that makes you care. Hemsworth (Avengers: Infinity War) is all shaggy, scraggly charm as a cult leader who gets off pitting his followers, and captives, against one another. Really he likes to listen to himself speak, and Hemsworth is having a grand ole time with the part. Another actor exhibiting clear joy is Hamm (Baby Driver) who is, if you’ll pardon the pun, hamming it up with great gusto. He does a far majority of the talking for the first twenty minutes. He’s practically bouncing all over the place as an unchecked extrovert, but when alone, Hamm demonstrates an additional layer to his outlandish character. Another strong impression is from Pullman (Strangers: Prey at Night) as the lone employee eager to find absolution for his part in the El Royale’s history of sin as well as his own personal demons. The weakest of the ensemble ends up being Johnson (Fifty Shades Freed) who gets lost in her femme fatale archetype and can’t seem to find her way out again.

This is only Goddard’s second directing feature and his best directing aspect is that he knows when to linger on the written page. There are several segments that dwell in a certain emotion, elevated by Goddard’s tracking shots to continue the predicated unease. There’s one early moment where the bowels of the El Royale are revealed as hidden viewing areas to secretly record the guests doing their seemingly private illicit good times. The lead character of this vignette walks along the corridor, studying other characters and slowly realizing the implications of what he or she is finding. The scene is given a beautiful and eerie soundtrack thanks to Darlene practicing her singing, belting out “This Old Heart of Mine” like her life depended upon it, the tune taking on a sinister edge as it echoes through the dark hallway along with the tick-tock of the metronome. There’s another terrific singing suspense segment in this very same location, except with a different character spying on Darlene as she and another character work in conjunction to coordinate their movements, timing striking sounds in the room to her claps. Goddard has an adequate eye for visuals but he benefits from the gorgeously conceived and constructed El Royale setting, allowing the quirks of the rundown hotel to serve as another character to his ensemble. I enjoyed little touches, like only the Nevada side having a liquor license and the bright red line that runs down the middle of everything.

And yet there are some lingering doubts that halt me from a full-throated endorsement of El Royale, and I’ve been trying to articulate them better in the days since I watched the film. It frankly doesn’t fully come together by the end in a way that feels suitably climactic. Once Billy Lee enters the third act, the movie stabilizes and we spend time with the remaining characters assembled together to be terrorized by the cult leader. After seeing everyone else’s story in smaller vignettes with some slippery non-linear perspectives, we’ve finally come to our big confrontation and summit with everyone. Except it doesn’t feel as big as the movies needs it to be. Characters will be dispatched swiftly, and instead of it feeling shocking it feels abrupt and contrived, devaluing the character arcs that had been shuffling forward to that point. The deaths feel too ho-hum, and the final confrontation and melee too chaotic and random. The sacrifices feel wasted and sloppy rather than the payoff from some long established setup. It’s here where Goddard cannot hide his narrative trickery anymore and the machinations are exposed. I couldn’t help but feel that the final act was slowly losing the momentum and excitement that had been built carefully over the course of two hours. Billy Lee isn’t quite the force that his whispered presence has been made out to be, no fault to Hemsworth, who impresses me more and more with every new performance. It’s like by the end of his movie Goddard has realized that certain characters were inevitably just more interesting than others and he saves room for them to get a climax and brushes off the rest. Thematically I don’t quite know if it comes together with any sort of final statement about the 1960s, the dichotomy of good and evil, or anything else. It’s a final act that left me a little disappointed and realizing the end wasn’t nearly as fun as the journey.

Bad Times at the El Royale is a movie jam-packed with twists, plot turns, and colorful characters played by great actors who are clearly enjoying themselves, given the room to roam and stretch their muscles as exaggerated and dangerous criminal cohorts. Goddard’s film is impeccably structured up until its final act where it feels like the answers and confrontations cannot match the mysteries and setup that had been laid before. If you’re a fan of the top level of Tarantino imitators, like Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead or Lucky Number Slevin, or enjoy unpacking a good mystery, then check into the El Royale, a hotel where maybe the cockroaches have the best chance at survival.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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