PLOT: Set in the world 2257 A.D., a settlement of only men live on an Earth-like planet, with their every thought manifesting out loud, outside their heads. When a young woman, Viola (Daisy Ridley), crash lands on the planet and is discovered by a young man, Todd (Tom Holland), the two must escape the clutches of the evil Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen).
REVIEW: All movies require a tremendous amount of effort to bring to the screen. However, in the case of the new movie CHAOS WALKING, the effort put into bringing this particular story to audiences defies reason. From the initial draft of the script being written all the way back in 2012 by Eternal Sunshine’s Charlie Kaufman, to the numerous drafts done afterward from a half-dozen writers, to the then extensive re-shooting starting in 2019 costing millions upon millions, all the way to this week’s official release, which is finally here after dates being pushed several times over two years. Everyone involved likely had so much passion to put that much into bringing this futuristic story to the screen, and the tragedy is, almost none of that passion actually made it up there.
Based on the acclaimed first in a trilogy of Young Adult novels – this entry titled The Knife of Never Letting Go – by writer Patrick Ness (one of the half-dozen writers who took to the script, eventually landing his name on the finished draft alongside Christopher Ford), this sci-fi story is set 250 years in the future on a planet, not unlike our own. In fact, it’s so not unlike our own, it pretty much just looks like normal Canada, where the movie was shot. But on this fictitious planet, we center on Todd (Tom Holland) who is one of several in a male-only settlement, the women being supposedly killed by the planet’s native inhabitants (called Spackles) years before. Space croppers don’t sound like the most compelling set-up, but here, all the men have become afflicted with a condition called “the Noise” where all their thoughts and imaginations are manifested in the open, leaving them unable to hide anything from anyone.
Blending a little Western in the sci-fi, the settlement is run by the seedy Mayor David Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen), who moseys around on his horse, a big, too-wide-brimmed hat, and what can only be described as a pimp coat – being a general creep the whole time. After a ship carrying a new wave of settlers crashes, a lone survivor, a woman, Viola (Daisy Ridley), stumbles upon this madness, and the man-folk of the village don’t take too kindly to her. With the aid of Todd, they venture out to find some way of helping her contact her people. It’s an adventure through the woods if that adventure was only worth watching to see Todd’s thoughts loudly float around his head as they walked around.
Whereas other YA franchise films from Lionsgate like The Hunger Games and Divergent have a little action and energy to their teen/early-20s angst, Chaos Walking is mostly content with just the angst. So much of the movie’s runtime is dedicated to following around these two characters, who manage to connect through a shared sense of loneliness and a collective awkwardness when Todd’s very vocal thoughts betray what he just said. Often it means stuff like “She’s cute” and “Blonde hair. Nice smile,” coming out at all the wrong times. Meanwhile, Mayor Pimp and his goonies are slowly hunting them down, because hey, gotta have something to break up the forest walking. It’s almost admirable to see this story take a more grounded approach to the YA formula, only until you realize a lot of that is because it’s leaving so little for everyone outside of the leads to do or offer.
However, for as meandering as this movie both sounds and very much is, it’s weird how much more it works when it’s not trying to be an attempt at a grand, YA trilogy. When it leans into the quirkier side of a young man not being able to hide what he’s thinking, it can have a sense of humor and relatability to keep things somewhat engaging. The instances of thought-dialogue are spliced together nicely alongside what Todd is actually saying to make it seem like he’s arguing with a different version of himself (which, he pretty much is), and thanks to Holland’s talent it kind of all works. Everything that pops into Todd’s head — no matter how sad, awkward, or insecure — comes pouring out, and it’s interesting to see how that’s used to shape who he is as a character. There are even themes of toxic masculinity explored through him, as he needlessly tries to bury emotions to “be a man.” Even though he bowed out some years ago, I sense little nugget of Kaufman’s sensibilities in these moments.
This is certainly Holland’s movie. His character is whom we focus on, and whose journey we follow. As a result, Ridley as Viola can’t help but feel like a sidekick who’s simply there to help Todd get from Growth Point A to Growth Point B. So much of what she’s given to talk about is her family and getting somewhere she can send a message to her ship. In terms of her actions she’s a resilient character, no doubt, not being subjected to typical action movie tropes wherein she needs to be saved by some man all the time. She’s capable and goal-oriented, doing what she can to be a good friend to Todd but is in no way looking to fall for him. But as far as emotional growth all the focus is on Todd, making the story of these two feel heavily one-sided. There are some sweet moments between them, though, and that’s where the movie shines the most, and their chemistry as friends is the movie at its most genuine and rewarding.
And yet, the plan from the start was sure to make this the beginning of a trilogy, hence why so much money was thrown at it; $100 million, to be exact. When you hear that figure and watch the movie, you will instantly wonder where all that money went. Multi-colored clouds floating around men’s heads can’t be that expensive, and aside from a few shots of big spaceships, there aren’t many visual effects scenes. This is a movie that tries to set the stage for something bigger, but between a narrative that never knows how to drive that point home, a sense of scope or wonder, or how to make use of its huge cast, there’s little to connect to on-screen aside from the two leads. Whatever sense of spectacle or excitement of any kind director Doug Liman has brought to past movies (Edge of Tomorrow, American Made) none of that makes the cut here, and he, on the contrary, seems more on autopilot, making scenes not defined by Todd’s mind going berzerk feel listless.
As for that big cast, they get done the dirtiest. Perhaps on the promise that we will see them in the “next chapter,” characters like Nick Jonas’ “Davy” Prentiss and Cynthia Erivo’s Hildy Black – two characters who have huge roles to play at one point or another – just sort of never show up again or have their arcs resolved. Such is also the case for the planet natives, one of whom fights with Todd at one point, only to never see him or other natives ever again. That’s not to say anyone in the cast is especially bad here. While Jonas isn’t quite cut out for a villain role, actors like Mikkelsen, Demian Bichir as Todd’s adoptive dad, and David Oyelowo’s Aaron, the manic priest, are too good to not offer something to their screen time.
The shame of Chaos Walking is that between the beloved source material and some of the themes explored – such as male insecurity, disinformation, and learning to escape the clutches of cult-like hysteria – I can see why the people involved cared so much to bring this to the screen. There’s some worthwhile stuff here, and when it takes time to embrace the small moments, it can really work. But everything else outside of those moments and the dedicated cast who are really trying to do what they can to give this thing some heft, there is just nothing at all worth connecting to here, with either tired YA tropes being recycled or just a severe lack of energy and momentum. The studio isn’t likely to make their massive budget back from this, which there won’t likely be more, so unless you want to watch something that will constantly remind you of how great it could’ve been, I suggest you keep walking.