Chaos Walking Review: Holland & Ridley Can’t Save Messy Narrative Execution

Based on The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, Chaos Walking is the next young-adult novel series to get a film adaptation. There’s a lot going on in the film, which introduces a new planet, one that somehow affects only men and forces their inner thoughts to the outside for all to hear. This affliction is called “the Noise” and it’s a large part of the tension at the center of the film. There are minimal bursts of potential lurking in Chaos Walking’s messy execution, but it doesn’t deliver much but stagnant characters and dull action.  

Set in the year 2257, Chaos Walking follows a first wave of human settlers who have landed on a planet where the Noise has completely upended their previous way of life. All the women are gone, allegedly killed by the natives of the planet. Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland), the youngest resident of Prentisstown, a small settlement run by the hardened, strict Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen), struggles to control his Noise. This escalates his rivalry with Davy Prentiss (Nick Jonas) and creates more tension with the town’s Preacher Aaron (David Oyelowo), though keeping his head down or repeating his name doesn’t help Todd get a grip on his stray (and loud) thoughts. Things take a strange turn when a mysterious woman, Viola (Daisy Ridley), arrives on the planet after her shuttle crashes. When Todd teams up with her to escape the mayor and townspeople, they discover secrets that have long been buried. 

The film hinges on Viola and Todd’s relationship; their ability to rely on and trust each other in the midst of a harrowing ordeal grows in intensity, but Holland and Ridley are not very compatible together. The characters are meant to have a strong, believable foundation, but it falters due to weak writing and a lackluster rapport and chemistry between the lead actors. Todd’s thoughts may be an open book to Viola, but the incessant noise overshadows what could have been an interesting and unique approach to communication in a dystopian setting. Holland and Ridley’s performances are rather flat and the considerably thin material doesn’t help matters. The rest of the cast’s talents are wasted on a slow-moving and surface-level plot that doesn’t give them all that much to work with. 

The script, co-written by Christopher Ford and Ness, never comes together cohesively. Perhaps this is due to the years-long delay and reshoots plaguing the film’s production, but there seems to be a lot of good ideas that become scattered, as though the direction was somehow lost on the way towards completion. Above all, Doug Liman’s direction substitutes meaningful character development and worldbuilding for dull, slow, and repetitive chase sequences. It seems odd that there’s a whole world to explore and yet these men are after this one woman like it’s the Salem witch trials. 

The film leans into the preacher (a devastatingly misused Oyelowo) and Prentiss’ openly sexist ideologies — the former of which stems from religious text, which continues to argue that women are the weaker sex, and the latter from the idea that men’s nature is fueled by a need to kill (in this case women, the obvious target here). Whereas issues of blatant sexism, toxic masculinity (the preacher sneers that Todd is “weak like a woman”), and war (Prentiss argues that it changes people for good) could have been thoughtfully addressed, Chaos Walking doesn’t engage with them at all. It’s disconcerting to watch what may have been significant commentary watered down to ineffective and grating dialogue. In that vein, the film has nothing to say about any of these subjects and it’s disheartening considering how such issues are littered throughout the story. 

There is also no sense of urgency. Todd and Viola flee from one settlement to the next, but the film takes its time, seemingly unbothered by the idea that Viola could, in fact, be killed or stuck on this planet, one that is barely explored, forever. To that end, Chaos Walking doesn’t explain why humans had to settle on other planets or why the Noise affects only the men. What’s more, the film gets into murky territory by portraying the planet’s natives, called Spackles, as monstrous creatures who are out to kill humans. They don’t get nearly enough backstory. Without any nuance (and this film has none), their portrayal remains one-note and nondescript. While Chaos Walking may not be the worst film to be released this year, it’s messy and unimaginative, with its unwillingness to further deepen and engage with the backstory, themes, and character relationships holding back what could have been a decently enjoyable film. 

Chaos Walking will be released in theaters on March 5, 2021. The film is 109 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for violence and language.

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