When it comes to science fiction, I am generally easy to please. Give me some space exploration, some sci-fi weaponry, and humanity creating conflict with the native inhabitants on a planet and you will tick multiple boxes for me. I even liked the critically underwhelming film Jumper, which is director Doug Liman’s previous foray into the genre. In that regard, Chaos Walking is just a good sci-fi film.
Set in the year 2257, Chaos Walking is set on the New World, a planet colonized by humans many years ago. When the settlers arrived, they discovered that the men were afflicted by “the Noise,” a mysterious side effect that causes all of their innermost thoughts to be on full display for everyone around them. For some reason, women did not have “the Noise” which led to conflicts between men and women. Ultimately this led to the women being killed, purportedly by the native species, the Spackle, during a war. Now, with the second wave of settlers set to arrive, David Prentiss fights to keep his dark secret at bay, while Todd Hewitt and Viola pose a threat to exposing it.
Chaos Walking was so Close to Being a Great Sci-Fi Movie
Introducing audiences to a fresh new dystopian future can be a tedious task for a filmmaker. Liman finds some success in building the world of Chaos Walking, though some of the more interesting aspects of the New World are sacrificed in favor of the overwhelming main plot. Most of this muddled backstory surrounding the colonization of the New World is due to the book’s adaptation. A long list of writers (seven, to be exact) had a part in adapting the screenplay, which is ultimately where some of my issues with the film lie.
Lionsgate’s Chaos Walking is based on the young adult dystopian trilogy written by British novelist Patrick Ness. The film largely covers the plot of the first novel The Knife of Letting Go, with some deviations to the outcome of the book which allows Chaos Walking to stand on its own or be revisited in the future.
If you have not read the books yet, I want to warn you about a scene that I was not warned about ahead of watching the movie. If you have seen the adorable dog Manchee in the trailers, I want to warn you that the dog dies and it was Bridge to Terabithia-level traumatizing for me. If you have read the books and you feel prepared for the dog’s death, the murderer is the same, but the method is different and somehow even worse on screen.
Chaos Walking had a lengthy pre and post-production process. The film was announced in 2011, shortly after the final book of the trilogy was published. Filming began in 2017 in Québec, Canada, and the film was set to release in March 2019. The release date was ultimately pushed back due to reshoots in 2019 and following more delays during the pandemic, the film found its March 5th release date. Despite these difficulties, the film is anticipated to be better than previously anticipated.
(L-R): Daisy Ridley as Viola Eade and Mads Mikkelsen in Chaos Walking. Photo Credit: Murray CloseOne slight qualm I have with this adaptation is that the script aged up the characters. In the books, Todd Hewitt is approaching his 13th birthday and Viola is 13 years old. At the start of production, Tom Holland was 21 and Daisy Ridley was 25. While this does not fundamentally change the structure of the story, it does shift the dire nature of the situation that they find themselves in. There’s something far more sinister about grown adults tracking down and attempting to kill children, versus tracking down young adults.
That said, Holland and Ridley’s performances are the highlight of Chaos Walking. They have great chemistry on-screen and are convincing in their roles. Their work appeared to be physically demanding: treks through rainy, waterlogged forest terrain, whitewater rapids, and copious amounts of mud, sweat, blood, and grime. For Star Wars fans, it was entertaining to see Ridley play another character who had never seen rain before.
Ridley spends the better part of her first thirty minutes on-screen doing most of her performance physically, as her character has been traumatized by her arrival in the New World and is overwhelmed by the Noise from the men around her. Holland exudes a lot of the same affable personality that lights up the screen in the Spider-Man films. His instant infatuation with Viola is actually quite hilarious, considering he can’t really hide the fact that he keeps thinking about the way she says her name, or in one instance, the way he manifests a fantasy about the pair of them kissing.
Holland and Ridley are not the only big names in Chaos Walking. Mads Mikkelsen is David Prentiss, the Mayor and founder of Prentisstown where Todd (Holland) lives with his father figures Ben (Demián Bichir) and Cillian (Kurt Sutter). Prentiss’s antagonistic son Davey Prentiss is played by Nick Jonas. The preacher Aaron, a religious zealot hellbent on seeing women as soulless devils, is played by David Oyelowo. Hildy, the leader of the Farbranch community, is portrayed by Cynthia Erivo. Even with a who’s who of blockbuster names, they weren’t able to elevate Chaos Walking to a truly great film.
The film’s production design was excellent. Prentisstown felt very lived-in, and perfectly at home among the grungy dystopian vibes, in sharp contrast with the more homespun comfort found in Farbranch. The contrast was a nice visual cue about the different ways that David and Hildy act as Mayor for their communities. Ridley’s costume in the latter half of the film reminded me of Leeloo’s costume in The Fifth Element, which I thought was a nice nod to the genre.
There are a lot of really interesting concepts introduced throughout the film. There are allusions to human colonization and first contact with the Spackle, the gender dynamics caused by the Noise, and the colonies that began as a response to what happened in Prentisstown. But the potential of these concepts is completely squandered and never fully explored.
Chaos Walking works fine as a movie, but the expansive nature of the world would have been better served as a limited series, giving the plot and the characters more time to develop. Knowing that the chances of a follow-up film are slim, the ending of Chaos Walking felt underwhelming. While the main plot was resolved, the subplots and newly introduced concepts were not given the opportunity to be anything more than surface-level situations for the characters.
The final showdown between Todd and David felt rushed; especially after nearly ninety minutes of David pursuing Todd and Viola. The rush to the finish line culminated in a lot of open-ended questions about what will become of the Mayor’s men now that the truth has come out? What will become of Prentisstown and the other communities? Will there be a resolution for what Davey did?
Overall, Chaos Walking is a good sci-fi film. It is a generous adaptation of the original source material while managing to stand on its own as a film. Aside from the unnecessary animal death, the most egregious act of this film is to have such an incredible cast entirely underserved by the script. If you are looking for a good sci-fi film that will leave you frustrated by its potential to be a great sci-fi film, Chaos Walking is your best bet this weekend.
Chaos Walking is rated PG-13 and is out in theaters & IMAX on March 5.