Given the arduous trek Chaos Walking has taken to get to the big screen – its delays not related to COVID-19, surprisingly – one would be forgiven for expecting the absolute worst now that it is finally upon us. It’s not the franchise starter it clearly intended to be, and there’s more wrong with it than there is right, but the promising premise and persevering cast mean Doug Liman’s sci-fi actioner is ultimately a missed opportunity more than an outright disaster.
Based on screenwriter Patrick Ness’s own novel, 2008’s “The Knife of Never Letting Go”, Chaos Walking is set on a secondary planet in 2257 (“The New World”) where the female species has all been eliminated from existence due to an alien invasion. At least that’s what the film’s boyish antagonist Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland, making sure you won’t forget his character’s name either) has been led to believe, living on a farm under the caring eyes of his fathers, Ben (Demian Bichir) and Cillian (Kurt Sutter), trying his hardest to stay quiet in a town where opposing thoughts to the status quo can get you killed.
I say it’s hard to stay quiet because on this particular planet men’s thoughts are visible and audible for all to hear. It’s a phenomenon known as “The Noise”, and young Todd is trying to master the art of suppressing his thoughts so that he can move about undetected, something the region’s Mayor (Mads Mikkelsen) has perfected. The notion of not wanting your thoughts known proves more needed than ever when an outer-worldly pod crashes on the outskirts of The New World, and the emerging lone survivor is Viola (Daisy Ridley), a girl whose presence sends shockwaves throughout. As a girl her thoughts are contained, it throws into chaos (pun not intended) the supposed history of all women having been eliminated, and it awakens stirring feelings for Todd who has never seen a live girl prior; though the majority of his thoughts range from thinking she’s “pretty” and has “yellow hair”.
Because Viola’s thoughts are contained it naturally gives her an advantage – something the Mayor doesn’t want becoming common knowledge – so, in expected action fashion, the film adopts an on-the-run mentality as Todd and Viola do their best to escape to an abandoned wreckage site that will hopefully provide her with the tools necessary to contact her ship, lest she be trapped on New World. Given the premise – not entirely original, but extremely workable – and the collective talent on board, it’s a shame that Chaos Walking never wholly commits to its thesis. Director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow, Mr. & Mrs. Smith) is no stranger to executing successful action-minded fare and, at times, it’s obvious that the original film (it was filmed in 2017 and tested, poorly, in 2018) was likely to be something more philosophical and suggestive. The Mayor’s violent opposition to the survival of women, the equation that womanhood equals weakness (something David Oyelowo’s radical preacher often sprouts), and the sexual connotations of an all-male society (it’s never solidified if Todd’s fathers are in a relationship born from sexual attraction or mere situational) are all narrative strands worthy of exploration yet never given the attention they deserve.
With the story unable to land on a smooth rhythm, and the concept of The Noise only being able to go so far before it becomes tedious, Chaos Walking ultimately settles on its cast having to do the heavy lifting. Holland and Ridley are suitable in their roles, both battling their expected dialogue with just enough conviction, though not exuding the charm we know they are capable of. Mikkelsen, Bechir, and Oyelowo are all under-utilised, so too (sadly) are Nick Jonas and Cynthia Erivo as, respectively, the Mayor’s approval-seeking son and another female survivor aware of The New World’s sordid history. They come and go throughout the film’s 109 minute running time, never completely making the impression they obviously intend to, further leaning into the film’s mass-pleasing editing process.
Whilst the film’s initial 2016 inception made more sense in relation to Hollywood’s YA novel appreciation – though it’s as far back as 2011 that Chaos Walking was on the radar – the dwindling interest in the dystopian-future subgenre that The Hunger Games rode to success (and, sadly, efforts like Divergent and Darkest Minds didn’t) means Liman’s film is already at something of a disadvantage, not remotely helped by poor test screenings, delayed reshoots, and a global release amid a pandemic. In another life, another time, Chaos Walking could have very well been the starting point of an investing franchise – one that valued story over spectacle – but, as it stands, the noise is clear that this missed opportunity is housed within a world that isn’t worth visiting.
Chaos Walking is screening in Australian cinemas from March 4th, 2021.