I have never read Patrick Ness's 2008 YA novel The Knife of Never Letting Go, the source material for the feature film Chaos Walking (the movie takes its title form the overall series of which the book was the first part). Indeed, until a day ago, I had never heard of The Knife of Never Letting Go. But I am, even so, entirely confident that it does a much better job of treating the high concept at the center of the narrative, for the simple reason that if the book presented that concept as horribly as Chaos Walking does, there is absolutely no chance in hell that anybody would have ever thought it would be a good idea to adapt it.

Since that concept drives virtually every other single aspect of the film, we'd better pin it down: on a new world that humanity has tried to colonise a couple of hundred years in the future, named by the settlers "New World" - hot dog, that's some writing right there - all living beings experience something called "The Noise": the manifestation of their thoughts as a puff of multicolored smoke that sometimes coalesces into the shape of whatever they're thinking about, while also broadcasting as sound loud enough to be heard from a short distance away. At east, all the living male beings: the human women who landed on New World seemed immune to the effects of The Noise. They were not, however, immune to being killed by the large, hostile alien creatures already living on the planet, which waged war against the humans until the women were all dead and the men were reduced to a scrawny number of survivors. This is the world in which Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland) lives, a wee baby when his parents died and left him all alone in the rickety frontier town Prentissville, overseen by the jolly tyrant Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen, spending much of the film's running time in a massive fur coat that is the most appealing thing, by far, in the entire movie). He's never seen a human woman at all, which is about to change when a scout ship crashes in the woods just outside town: it was filled with a recon team from the big human colony ship that's trying to find out what's going on with New World, but the only survivor is Viola (Daisy Ridley, wearing a stringy dishwater blonde wig that doesn't fit right on her head and suggests that somebody in hair and makeup had an intense personal hatred for her), who wouldn't you know it, is about Todd's age, and also about his equal in being much prettier than everybody else in the cast. And Todd is thus immediately intoxicated by the interesting, attractive stranger, and horrified to realise that she knows literally everything he's thinking, while he can't figure out what's going on in her head at all.

As metaphors go, that's not... actually, it is. It is the worst metaphor. "Teen boys are embarrassingly obvious about their hormonal urges and don't 'get' women", well, I'm glad as hell we were able to sink all this CGI and this bizarrely cumbersome, badly stitched-together, unapologetically arbitrary sci-fi hokum into making that intensely fresh observation. Like I said, I have to assume the book actually makes this somehow not the stupidest thing on (New) Earth, but Chaos Walking - a title that's essentially in reference to Todd bumbling around like a little beacon of of puppy love and panic attacks blazing like a klaxon, via an in-universe aphorism about men who can't control their Noise - absolutely can't manage that. The Noise never feels like anything other than a clumsy attempt at doing something "cool" that can support the usual YA family-friendly horniness and later on motivate a plot twist when we learn the indescribably unsurprising fact that the reason all the women are dead is a bit more complicated than that. Especially once Todd helps Viola escape from Prentissville and they discover in the other villages around that there still are some women, and that "Prentissville" is spoken off with solemn dread.

That all being said, in the early going Chaos Walking isn't actually terrible. It also isn't actually good, to be clear. But before it turns its attention to storytelling, and sticks to just establishing the world, it's satisfying enough. The CGI used to bring the Noise to life has a certain enjoyably toxic quality in its gross oranges and purples, and it matches well to the sickly washed-out greens that director Doug Liman and cinematographer Ben Seresin use in their ugly digital images. Let's be clear - it's not a good-looking movie. But it looks bad in ways that suit the mean exhaustion of the story and the weathered misery etched into every one of the faces in Prentissville.

Right around the time that Viola decides to get the hell out of Prentissville, the movie just up and dies. To understand why Chaos Walking ended up the way it did, we must look at what the hell happened to it: shot in 2017, deemed so profoundly broken and unreleasable by the studio that it was held until expensive reshoots could be conducted ferreted in around Ridley's Star Wars commitments and Holland's Spider-Man commitments. Three and a half years after photography wrapped, having been bounced around from one unattainable release date to another it, Lionsgate finally managed to shovel it into theaters under the veil of a pandemic, looking for all the world like they were taking advantage of the situation to make sure that nobody really noticed the film or its meek box office performance. Sure enough, the film feels altogether like something that got stapled together out of footage shot years apart by two different creative teams, its unendurably long 108-minute running time made out of scenes that barely seem to connect together to form the scrawniest summary of a narrative. Mayor Prentiss's motivations are kind of just dumped on us in the middle, giving the impression that we're entering the film's endgame with almost a full hour to go; characters played by solid actors like Cynthia Erivo and Ray McKinnon simply warp into the film, do a thing, and warp back out of it. That's another thing: there is a lot of talent being wasted here in a cast that looks pretty fantastic on paper - Demián Bichir and David Oyelowo are also involved - but is all used up on half-assed appearance that have been sloppily glued in, and not one actor out of the lot is at all able to spit out their clunky sci-fi dialogue while leaving behind the impression that they had any idea what the hell they were talking about. Ridley weathers this the best, thanks to playing a character who's supposed to be constantly confused, enough to even overcome her profoundly mortifying hair. Though not by much.

The longer Chaos Walking goes, the more of a catastrophe the story becomes, until eventually it just feels like someone gave up on deciding how to arrange the half-dozen scenes out of the footage that needed to be there, and decided it was just enough that they all showed up. And even then, it eventually has to just say "fuck it" and give Todd a blackout so that they can wake him up in a different scene from a different movie and get us to the damn sequel hook already. Because yes, bless its heart, Chaos Walking comes with a sequel hook, though the kind that can be reasonably well-defended as merely "open-ended" in the event that no sequel materialises, and surely none will in this case. Anyway, whatever small pleasures accrue to the world-building have their brains all smashed out on the rocks of the second and third acts, and there is absolutely never a chance of the characters having enough definition, or the story having enough depth, to make any of this actually interesting as, you know, a movie.