‘Chaos Walking’ Review: All Noise and No Substance

Audrey Fox reviews Chaos Walking, the latest film from Doug Liman, who has delivered a messy adaptation of an intriguing sci-fi story.
User Rating: 4

A troubled production that drags on for years doesn’t tend to bode well for any film’s prospects. Chaos Walking began filming in 2017, practically a lifetime ago in pandemic times, and years of reshoots and subsequent delays repeatedly called into question its quality. Now, what was meant to be a big summer blockbuster is now released in March of a pandemic. It’s difficult, however, to tell if even the most ideal circumstances could have saved Chaos Walking. This was always going to be a tough book series to adapt, but Doug Liman’s unimaginative directing style and insistence on frenetic pacing verging on incoherence do it no favors. Stars Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley try their best, but Chaos Walking is a mess: all noise and no substance.

Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland) is a boy on the cusp of adulthood in a society composed entirely of men, settlers from Earth to the new world. They’re embroiled in a constant war with the Spackle, the native species on their new planet, who they believe cursed them with the Noise: an ability to hear everyone else’s thoughts, or rather an inability to keep any of one’s thoughts private. And it only affects men. Regardless, all the women died under mysterious circumstances when Todd was a baby. They live a rugged, frontier life of survival, dominated by the influence of the Mayor (Mads Mikkelsen), who can control his thoughts and manipulate the Noise better than any other man, and the Preacher (David Oyelowo), a fire-and-brimstone zealot with an eye on Judgment Day.

But Todd’s life changes forever when he discovers Viola (Daisy Ridley) having just survived a crash landing after spending her entire life on a spaceship to the new world. She’s the first girl he’s ever seen, and his awkwardness is only exacerbated by having every thought broadcast to her in stereo while also having no idea of what’s going on in her head. Nevertheless, he feels compelled to protect her (gender norms apparently transcend time and space) and help her reach a satellite to contact her people on the main ship. Which is easier said than done, what with them being hunted by Todd’s townsfolk and all.

There are, unfortunately, a lot of problems with Chaos Walking. Some of them were probably unavoidable given the source material’s constraints, but that doesn’t make the film any easier to sit through. Just on the face of it, stream-of-consciousness thoughts almost always make for bad dialogue. It probably wasn’t easy to come up with a visual and audio representation of the Noise, but surely there had to have been a better idea than just having Tom Holland bark out monosyllabic thoughts like Dug from Up. (Although, fair play, having the Noise as colored clouds of mist circling their heads is a cool visual, and, interestingly, they experiment with showing memories as well as thoughts.)

Furthermore, Chaos Walking does next to nothing to explore the Noise’s ramifications on the inhabitants of Prentisstown. It’s insistent on moving at a breakneck pace and doesn’t give us a chance to get settled before immediately plunging into the action. There’s something to be said for a science fiction story that takes the time to actually world build, or at least give the narrative a little space to breathe. Because there are interesting ideas here that deserve to be explored.

How does a society function when no one can lie, keep secrets, or for that matter, have any privacy whatsoever? How does a community so entrenched in masculinity survive, having lost all women and knowing that they will die out within a generation? Director Liman seems without curiosity and hasn’t the slightest desire to pause at any point in the film and dive into these concepts. Also, the rules of the Noise are applied incredibly arbitrarily. It’s a Herculean effort to keep information from other people in Prentisstown, except for the one secret that apparently everyone has been able to keep easily. There are entire scenes where few thoughts intrude, even though it should be much, well, noisier by all rights.

Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley are inherently likable performers, and they’re easy protagonists to root for. Their dynamic is the least objectionable part of Chaos Walking, but their characters are so thinly written that they cannot salvage it. Mads Mikkelsen and David Oyelowo, supremely talented actors who can normally be relied upon to elevate anything they appear in, are both criminally underutilized here. As cardboard cutout villains, they’re inexcusably bland. Everyone involved just deserves so much better. The entire production just feels like it can’t be bothered to develop anything in any tangible way, leaving Chaos Walking shallow and chaotic and disappointingly unsatisfying.

4
Poor
Written by
Audrey Fox has been an entertainment journalist since 2014, specializing in film and television. She has written for Awards Circuit, Jumpcut Online, Crooked Marquee, We Are the Mutants, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic. Audrey is firm in her belief that Harold Lloyd is the premier silent film comedian, Sky High is the greatest superhero movie ever made, Mad Men's "The Suitcase" is the single best episode of television to date, and no one in the world has ever given Anton Walbrook enough credit for his acting work. Her favorite movies include Inglourious Basterds, Some Like It Hot, The Elephant Man, Singin' in the Rain, Jurassic Park, and Back to the Future.

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