Based on the YA series by Patrick Ness, Chaos Walking has an intriguing premise: on a faraway planet that is populated only by men, every man’s every thought is broadcast as ‘Noise’; an ethereal cloud, visible and audible to everyone, that when unkept can even take physical form and be weaponised (think of a snake and one shall appear for instance).
Hinting at lofty themes of privacy and toxic masculinity, it seems fertile ground for an intelligent and complex sci-fi drama. But having bagged two franchise favourites, Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley and Marvel’s Tom Holland as the leads and directed by Edge Of Tomorrow’s Doug Liman, the movie has inevitably developed into more of a blockbuster action movie.
When Viola (Ridley) crash lands onto the planet and (literally) crashes into innocent farm boy, Todd (Holland), the two must form an uneasy alliance with Todd acting as a reluctant guide, helping her navigate across the frontier towns of a colonised alien world in an effort to send a signal out into deep space and deliver her back to her ship.
Playing up to all the great quest/western (questern?) tropes, Chaos Walking sees Todd and Viola clash and bicker their way across the planet, their awkward dynamic made all the more amusing as Todd tries to suppress his Noise broadcasting the teenage-like excitement at seeing a girl for the first time. They are relentlessly pursued by Mads Mikkelsen’s magnificently malevolent Mayor Prentiss (of Prentisstown – though that should probably be ‘penis-town’ given all the amped-up dick swinging floating about…) who is desperately trying to preserve his powerful hold over the town and their ‘traditional’ values.
Liman has a proven track record of adapting sci-fi for the big screen. Directing 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, he turned Tom Cruise into a coward and Emily Blunt into a badass soldier. Perhaps this smart inversion has raised hopes too high for Chaos Walking because that same surprising balance between all-out action and the layered story hasn’t quite been achieved here. This is a shame because being based on Ness’ novel, who penned 2016’s moving story about a young boy coping with grief in A Monster Calls, you’d expect there would be plenty of deeper themes to really dig deep into. Instead, themes of toxic masculinity, colonialism, loneliness, political power plays and even religious fanaticism are all touched upon, but not explored, leaving a confusing spider web of possible avenues that are never fully concluded.
Moreover, as the first big-ticket sci-fi departure from their previous franchises, neither Holland nor Ridley seem particularly pushed here. Viola is filled with the same confidence as Star Wars’ Rey, and Holland’s hyper-neurotic Todd is just as adorably awkward as his Peter Parker. This is a shame as it looks like both actors were trying for something a little more complex. Ridley’s Viola has echoes of Milla Jovovich’s Leeloo in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (and not just because of the bright orange outfits), communicating a terrified nativity protected by a layer of mistrust and confidence. While Holland’s Todd tries to emulate the stoic nobility of great western heroes behind a paper-thin facade to guard the scared boy inside.
Chaos Walking has a great setup with a phenomenal cast, all of which have been edited into an easily digestible package. There’s some gorgeous production design and should a sequel be greenlit it might be fun to come back to this world. However, for a film with such potential, anything truly insightful is bulldozed out the way to make room for more surface-level action movie beats.