In sci-fi Western “Chaos Walking,” the mud-crusted colonists of New World have a tricky job of keeping secrets. That’s because something about the atmosphere on this far-flung planet — which otherwise looks a lot like the incentive-friendly Peach State of Georgia — interacts with the human brain, resulting in a curious phenomenon known as “the Noise,” a swirly CG effect whereby every little thing that goes through people’s heads can be heard by those around.
Now, if you’ve ever wished you could read the mind of “Spider-Man” star Tom Holland, this is your chance, although the sad truth about director Doug Liman’s flashy would-be franchise-starter (based on novelist Patrick Ness’ “Chaos Walking” trilogy, whose Wikipedia page boasts, “The series has won almost every major children’s fiction award in the UK”) is that his latest character doesn’t have a lot of big ideas to share. Mostly, he’s worried about appearing butch to his peers — frequently repeated “Be a man!” could be a mantra — or covering potentially embarrassing admissions with other thoughts. “I am Todd Hewitt,” he says so often it recalls the Old World expression “That’s my name, don’t wear it out.”
There are no women in Prentisstown, the pioneer settlement to which Todd Hewitt and his beet-farming family (adoptive dads Demián Bichir and Kurt Sutter) belong. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from two decades of dystopian young-adult movies, it’s never to trust the foundational mythology laid out in the opening act, because it’ll almost certainly be overturned later on (à la “Oblivion,” which wanted us to believe that Tom Cruise was one of two remaining humans on the planet). The other thing not to trust: a man called “the Mayor” (Danish villain Mads Mikkelsen) who has learned to control his Noise. On New World, when you can’t see someone’s thoughts, probably best to assume he’s lying.
In this case, the Mayor has convinced Todd that he’s the youngest human on the planet, that a native species called Spackle are dangerous, and that the absence of women isn’t highly suspicious. (Later we learn that women aren’t affected by the Noise.) This setup doesn’t quite hold together, since nearly everyone else in Prentisstown is old enough to remember what really happened to the women, and their memories are plain as day, but the predictable-enough explanation is best left to the movie to reveal.
The story begins with the arrival of a “space girl,” Viola (played by ultimate space girl Daisy Ridley), a scout for the long-overdue second wave of reinforcements these settlers were promised years before. Todd is understandably curious about this new arrival, whose high voice and yellow hair he finds pleasant — but not so pleasant as to jeopardize the film’s PG-13 rating. Todd comes across like an eager puppy, and his inner monologue, made manifest by the Noise, sounds a lot like that of Dug, the talking golden retriever from Pixar’s “Up.” (Todd actually has a puppy of his own, but be warned: This film is not a great fit for dog lovers.)
In Viola’s presence, Todd is easily distracted and even more easily embarrassed, like a teenager who blurts out the first thing to come to mind — a tiresome trait that Holland somehow makes endearing, putting those awkward Peter Parker skills to use. At first, Todd goes out of his way to impress the Mayor, whose own son Davy (Nick Jonas) doesn’t seem too happy about the dynamic. But after the Mayor takes Viola captive, Todd starts to wonder if maybe she could use his help. And so he helps her to escape, leading her on a trek to the next-nearest settlement, Farbranch, which, until now, he didn’t even know existed.
Liman, who wrangled an even more ambitious sci-fi epic in “Edge of Tomorrow” and next heads to outer space with Tom Cruise, makes easy work of the cross-country portion of the story, wherein Todd and Viola loosen up in one another’s presence while navigating various conflicts. For decades, movies featuring a lone lady among sex-deprived men would find some way to exploit her on camera, so it’s a nice switch-up that Todd’s the one to reveal himself in an amusingly unselfconscious nude scene. But pretty much every other cliché goes according to formula.
The duo have little trouble staying ahead of the Mayor and his men, since their posse can be seen on the horizon via the dark cloud of angry Noise that surrounds them. Mikkelsen is a smart casting choice, but he’s basically just the latest variation on the corrupt politico from a ’40s or ’50s Western, transposed to this near-future frontier. One of his henchmen, the fire-and-brimstone Preacher (David Oyelowo), gives off a flaming red aura, and proves the group’s wickedest member by far — though Liman fails to pay off that menace in his or other characters’ final showdowns.
When it comes to confrontations, the movie wimps out, putting more effort into New World-building than in the largely generic characters who populate it. That’s true of the “alien” ones as well — although technically, this planet belongs to the Spackle, and the humans are the invaders. “Chaos Walking” features just one interaction with this indigenous species, whose repulsive design leads one to wonder how “Avatar” would have gone over if the Na’vi were presented not as sexy blue cat-creatures but ugly tree-monsters.
The Spackle play a more important role in Ness’ third book, but could have been omitted in “Chaos Walking.” Like Suzanne Collins, who adapted her own “The Hunger Games” trilogy, Ness knows what information to seed here for sequels that, it’s safe to wager, will never get made. Holland is most likely responsible for bringing on “Spider-Man: Homecoming” writer Christopher Ford, but so much of the screenplay seems focused on trying to make the Noise intelligible, at the expense of the book’s more intriguing moral quandaries.
In theory, the Noise offers an interesting workaround to one of the key differences between literary fiction and film. The novelist can put the words inside a character’s brain directly on the page, whereas it normally takes narration to share the same on-screen. In practice, however, the Noise just verbalizes what a gifted thespian can convey in silence. Unless you’re dealing with an inscrutable star, like Ryan Gosling or Alain Delon, great actors invite us into their heads. Here, the execution is further confused by Holland’s animated body language and hyper-expressive face. When a director has that kind of charisma to work with, the Noise is just … well, noise.