Starring: Tom Holland, Daisy Ridley, Mads Mikkelsen & David Oyelowo
Directed by: Doug Liman
Distributed by: Lionsgate
Release Date: April 2021
Running Time: 109 mins
Synopsis: Two unlikely companions embark on a perilous adventure through the badlands of an unexplored planet as they try to escape a dangerous and disorienting reality where all thoughts are seen and heard by everyone.
Based upon the first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy, The Knife of Never Letting Go, the cinematic adaptation of Chaos Walking had a troubled production history with filming beginning in 2017, followed by reshoots in 2019 after poor test audience reactions, before eventually releasing direct to download in 2021 during the pandemic. It was ultimately considered a flop, recouping just $27M of its $100M budget, despite the appearance of Hollywood A-listers, Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley. Unfortunately, the behind-the-scenes turbulence leaves a mark on the finished product with a weak final act that feels rushed and unfulfilling after the fairly strong build-up throughout the film.
Director Doug Liman spends the majority of the film establishing the lore and mystique of Patrick Ness’ novels, focusing on the central concept of “the noise” – a telepathic side-effect of New-World that broadcasts out-loud the subconscious thoughts of every male. It is a fascinating concept and the film leans heavily into the idea with characters able to visualize, and even weaponize, their thoughts towards others. It is this strong world-building in the first two-thirds of the film that makes the fact that it flopped even more frustrating as most of the plot threads, such as the mysterious native aliens, will never get followed up.
Tom Holland stars as Todd Hewitt, the youngest boy in the colonial town of Prentisstown, and he brings much of the same “Peter Parker” naiveté present in Spider-Man: Homecoming to this role. The main distinguisher is that Todd Hewitt has never seen a woman before, and upon meeting a rather disheveled Daisy Ridley, becomes infatuated and a horny teenager – although the film keeps things relatively tame. I’m sure a real teenager would be visualising far more disturbing images than a passionate kiss between him and the girl. Daisy Ridley also carries over many of the same qualities from her defining role as Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, namely her stoic determination and frustration of boys. She also inexplicably has blonde hair, in what is presumably a really bad wig.
Mads Mikkelsen adds a bit of gravitas to the role as a veteran actor, although he is given little to get his teeth into. There are hints of his flamboyance, mostly in his fur-coat wardrobe, but the character is mainly there to appear threatening and to chase after the leads. He is slightly overshadowed in the villain stakes by the zealous preacher played by David Oyelowo, whose internal thoughts broadcast images of hellfire and damnation out to anyone who happens to be near him. There’s also a third antagonist in the form of Nick Jonas’ Davy Jr. who doesn’t really have much bearing on the plot at all, aside from giving Tom Holland an age-appropriate nemesis in the first act.
The film moves at a brisk pace, and it is only upon its conclusion that it becomes apparent that there wasn’t much action. Most of the film involves Todd & Viola hiking through the woods in an effort to reach a settlement to send out an SOS call to her ship. Doug Liman instead focuses his attention on character moments, specifically Todd’s relationship with his deceased mother and his interactions with Viola. These moments work extremely well, making it more disappointing that the film failed to build the foundations for a franchise.
One area that felt under-utilized was the native aliens of the planet – named the Spackle – who appear in one brief scene and are never seen again. The design of the alien was very eye-catching and impressive, and I’m sure they play a larger part in the books, but it felt like foreshadowing for sequels – a dangerous risk, especially when it doesn’t pay off. Having not read the books, I’m not sure how accurate this adaptation was – I suspect it was heavily trimmed down, but I did enjoy the basic plot enough to seek out the novels and try them.
At its core, Chaos Walking is a competent sci-fi adventure, but it is weakened by its rushed third act – presumably, a result of its test audience-driven reshoots. When it is focused on emotional character moments, the film is very effective and its central message about toxic masculinity and chauvinism is unique for the crowded Young Adult sci-fi genre. Unfortunately, the plot lacks the impact of The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner or even, dare I say, Twilight. As awkward as some of those YA adaptations are, they each managed to establish a strong foundation for future instalments. Both Holland and Ridley have experience in big-budget sci-fi epics, but fail to distinguish these characters enough from their previous roles. Frustratingly full of promise but weak on actual delivery, Chaos Walking is a fascinating example of how a film can have all the right ingredients on paper, yet lack the spark to build a franchise.
Score – ★★★
Chaos Walking is available on DVD & Blu-Ray on Amazon UK, and can be streamed digitally from Netflix.