Chaos Walking is the long-awaited adaptation of novelist Patrick Ness’ young adult trilogy, starring the MCU’s Tom Holland and Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley. Director Doug Liman’s sci-fi adventure unfolds in the New World, a faraway planet which humans colonised after destroying their home. Upon arrival however, something about this new land made it so that the men’s – but not the women’s – inner monologues were rendered both audible and visible.
Years later, these humans now live in Prentisstown, a dusty, American Frontier-style settlement ruled by their omnipotent mayor, David Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen, excellent as always). Women are entirely absent from the town. Through some inelegant but to-the-point exposition, it’s revealed that women were wiped out by the planet’s natives, the Spackle. What the long-term plan for survival sans womenfolk might be, who knows.
The source material’s concept is an immediate draw, though a difficult one to translate visually. Wisps of flowing colour swirls around the men’s heads, sometimes projecting images and always accompanied by constant, disjointed voiceover chatter. The resulting effect is exhausting and claustrophobic, though one figures that’s the point.
Local teen and beet farmer Todd Hewitt (Holland) struggles to shield his thoughts – his ‘Noise’, as the phenomenon has been dubbed – something which causes real problems when a spaceship crash lands Viola (Ridley) in his backyard. The sole survivor of a scouting mission for the overdue second wave of settlers, Viola’s mission is to signal the others ships that the planet is safe and habitable. The promise of newcomers is immediately seen as a threat by the men of Prentisstown and by the mayor in particular, forcing Todd and Viola to go on the run and search for the tech necessary to message her people.
Much of Chaos Walking’s runtime is spent with the duo as they trek through wilderness and encounter various obstacles. Once the backstories and world-building have been loosely sketched, what follows is a rather bland, formulaic Western following our scrappy heroes as they evade Prentiss and his posse – aptly travelling on horseback, with Mikkelsen sporting a floppy cowboy hat and flamboyant fur jacket. Despite the memorable fashion choices, it’s all strangely mundane, even when Liman makes good use of scale to lend the setting its otherworldly quality.
The film is so unoriginal and unkept that what Chaos Walking really needed was for viewers to care and root for the young protagonists. Instead, Todd’s constant mutterings mean all is laid bare from the get-go, and there’s then nowhere for the characterisation to go in such a short time; in turn, Viola’s lack of ‘Noise’ and her stock character backstory make her too closed off to be compelling. Despite that, casting Holland goes some way towards rescuing the characterisation. The actor’s own awkwardly funny, easily likeable persona infuses Todd with more life and charm than the script ever manages to.
All in all, Chaos Walking has a lot of problems: the script is shallow, the material is never meaningfully explored, the commentary on privacy and gender politics remains unmined, and the PG-13 rating means Liman plays it all far too safe. That said, Chaos Walking does lend itself to a nostalgically pleasant viewing experience, particularly for those who grew up during the Golden Age of dystopian YA movie adaptations (though it’s unquestionably destined for the same fate as 2013’s The Mortal Instruments, 2014’s Vampire Academy, or 2011’s I Am Number Four). With its lovable hero, hammy performances from high-calibre actors in supporting roles and comfortingly predictable beats, Chaos Walking is still perfectly watchable – particularly for current blockbuster-starved audiences.
Chaos Walking is out April 2nd.