Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A great sci-fi idea elevates Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland’s bumpy YA adventure Chaos Walking

Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland in Chaos Walking
Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland in Chaos Walking
Photo: Lionsgate

Note: The writer of this review watched Chaos Walking on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.

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In the distant future of Chaos Walking, Doug Liman’s long-delayed, would-be science fiction blockbuster, human settlers live like cowboys on another planet. New World, as they’ve christened it, is pretty similar to Earth, save for some unfamiliar fauna, a sun that never sets, and one unusual metaphysical anomaly: Every man or boy that sets foot on the surface of this foreign terra firma finds their most private thoughts publicly amplified. The phenomenon, which they call The Noise, manifests as a holographic halo swirling around everyone’s head—their stream of consciousness vaporized into projected images, their inner monologue made involuntarily outer. Some have learned to control and even mute the running commentary airing from their smoking noggin. Others find themselves over-sharing every hour of every day.

That’s the special hell endured by Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland), an orphan living in the frontier outpost Prentisstown. We learn his name quickly because his Noise is constantly blurting it out—it’s a mantra the boy runs through his head on repeat when trying to avoid broadcasting all his painfully teenage thoughts and feelings. There are, as it turns out, no women or girls in Prentisstown. (The plot ends up hinging on an explanation for their absence.) So when a spaceship crashes into the nearby woods, stranding one Viola (Daisy Ridley) on this hostile frontier of babbling male pathology, Todd isn’t just instantly smitten but also incapable of hiding it. He’s a lovesick adolescent with literally no filter—and unfortunately for Viola, her only option of escort across the treacherous terrain of New World and to another settlement where she hopes to make contact with the mothership hovering in the stratosphere.

A mental microphone is an idea that could have grown straight out of the tangled imagination of Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman, in fact, wrote an early draft of Chaos Walking, and whether a single line of his script made it into the film, one can certainly see what drew him to the material. Isn’t the Noise just an inconveniently out-loud version of the maddening voice-over that hounds Nic Cage in Adaptation or Jessie Buckley in last year’s I’m Thinking Of Ending Things? The far-out notion actually comes from a trilogy of well-regarded YA novels by Patrick Ness, who’s helped bring the first installment of his series, The Knife Of Never Letting Go, to the screen. Some of the problems endemic to bestselling teen lit, including an ellipses in place of an ending, plague this adaptation. But the premise is genuinely clever, and it gives the film a dramatic and comedic engine its dystopian peers could only dream of possessing.

After years of reshoots, bad test screenings, and delays, Chaos Walking arrives now bearing the mark of a troubled production: a failed franchise launcher awaiting its inevitable drubbing. There’s a choppiness, certainly, to its first act, which leaps through the expository setup at a pace that betrays the phantom limbs of excised scenes. Watching the film, one can understand why Liman, who’s spent most of his career at the helm of big-budget star vehicles, felt the urge to follow it with a quick, cheap palate cleanser like Locked Down, which hit HBO Max just six weeks ago. Yet in its blemished way, Chaos Walking is the better movie—and even with a $100 million budget, a relatively fleet and modest Hollywood spectacle. Liman leans perhaps more heavily into the Western half of his space-Western equation, sparingly deploying the towering, faceless extraterrestrials that function as an analogue for the native victims of manifest destiny. The plot is elementally straightforward: a man and woman pushing through the wilderness, gunslingers in hot pursuit.

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Chaos Walking
Chaos Walking
Photo: Lionsgate

It helps that Liman has assembled a uniformly overqualified cast, filling stock roles with the likes of David Oyelowo, Cynthia Erivo, Demián Bichir, and—as the sheriff of Prentisstown— the imposing Mads Mikkelsen, who can probably do unflappable paternal menace by muscle memory at this point. The film mostly hinges on its leads, who seem faintly grateful for a vacation from plucky star-making duty in much bigger Disney fantasias, even as Chaos Walking keeps them at least partially in their wheelhouse. Repurposing and hardening qualities honed in a galaxy farther away, Ridley becomes a pillar of no-nonsense resolve—her exasperation (and its eventual softening) come through loud and clear, even without a gaseous entity vocalizing those emotions. Holland, so woefully miscast just a week ago in Cherry, meanwhile proves a perfect fit for an imperfect boy hero at war with his own constantly aired doubts and neuroses; he’s like Spider-Man if everyone could read his thought balloons. The two forge a likably uneasy chemistry not too far removed from the quasi-romance at the heart of Liman’s Edge Of Tomorrow, in this case reinforced by the reliable punchline of Todd telling on himself ad nauseam, as if strapped into a supernatural lie detector. It’s consistently amusing—and thanks to the largely chaste nature of Todd’s adoration, never too creepy, either.

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Chaos Walking doesn’t have much in the way of surprises or excitement. (Liman stages the horse-and-laser action scenes with proficiency but little ingenuity.) What it does have is an ingenious sci-fi hook, a conceit of great narrative and thematic utility. The Noise works as a metaphor for the vulnerability of youth, the way teenagers sometimes feel like open books, all their emotions on display. As the film begins to reveal its easily guessed secrets, it also doubles as a resonant tale of misogyny in the face of exposure: an allegory about how male rage grows directly out of male insecurity and is fortified by religious zealotry. Miss those themes announced like thoughts put into words, and there’s still the way Liman and his writers play their Philip K. Dick-worthy concept for screwball comedy and suspense. You don’t need to be a mindreader (or even an avid YA reader) to anticipate the whole arc of Chaos Walking’s story. But you also don’t need to be Charlie Kaufman, apparently, to get some inventive fun out of a premise this solid.