Sometimes, films are unjustly judged. Other times, popular opinion needs to be challenged. Either way, this content will likely be unpopular.
Another film that fell victim to the pandemic, Chaos Walking was a promising prospect leading up to its release. With Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow, The Bourne Identity) directing, and Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley starring, it seemed to have all the credentials needed for an exciting sci-fi action-adventure.
Chaos Walking starts out strong enough, establishing its central characters and their motivations. Holland is somewhat wasted in his leading role, as his character, Todd, is relatively one-dimensional – although he does lend a brooding charisma to the generally underwritten character. Ridley then appears as Viola, having crash landed on the unimaginatively named “New World”, and Todd is enlisted to help her evade the generally unpleasant male colonists of Prentisstown.
The journey that Todd embarks upon by helping Viola is one of self-discovery that sees him question everything he’d been taught. In this, and in a few other small ways, Chaos Walking makes an attempt to address some much deeper themes, but it falls considerably short in that aspect.
Where Chaos Walking really excels is in its visuals. The dreary promise of New World is captured in lush, wild landscapes with only the vaguest sci-fi edge – even the costume department went all out to match the effect with grimy, well-worn clothing that wouldn’t look out of place in a modern Western – Chaos Walking really has its aesthetic nailed. In line with this, Holland’s tight-lipped, set-jawed protagonist actually doesn’t feel too out of place, although it’s a little jarring to see the actor stripped of the genuine depth he exhibits in many of his other roles.
Chaos Walking also boasts solid special effects – particularly that of “the Noise”, the purplish aura that broadcasts all men’s thoughts aloud. In a narrative sense, it’s a nice gimmick, but the way in which the film materializes the Noise feels as organic as it is interesting. The Noise also offers increased insight into the film’s characters, although their thoughts are all so decidedly straight-forward that at times, even this promising aspect feels a little wasted.
Daisy Ridley delivers a solid performance as Viola, although she uses the same repertoire that she used for her role in Star Wars, leaving her character feeling as though it was borrowed from some other (probably better) film. While there’s seemingly more to the character, it appears to be held back – whether this was in an attempt to keep her mysterious in order to highlight the contrast between Todd’s Noise and Viola’s lack thereof, or simply because there was some early franchise hope, we’ll never know.
Mads Mikkelsen plays the film’s villain well, although as Chaos Walking goes on it becomes increasingly clear that the film’s characters all fall squarely into well-known archetypes, making the general progression of the narrative generally predictable. This is a shame, as Chaos Walking‘s grimy visuals actually make for more than a few exciting scenes.
One of the best aspects of Chaos Walking was its reluctance to do the easy thing. While so many other sci-fi adaptations play up the action, Chaos Walking tries its hardest to lean on its characters. This doesn’t hold up as well as it should, but it’s a valiant effort, and it manages the delicate balance of CGI and practical effects unexpectedly well.
While Chaos Walking wasn’t quite all I’d originally hoped it would be, it was an enjoyable star vehicle for Holland and Ridley. It might have missed the mark a little, but it’s very much on par with other YA novel adaptations (like The Hunger Games or Divergent), and it didn’t deserve to flop the way it did or receive the critical bashing it ultimately took.
Summary: Excellent visuals enhance an otherwise generic sci-fi story. By making good use of its gimmick, Chaos Walking actually hampers its stars a little, but generally, it’s a fun experience with a handful of memorable scenes.
Highlights: It’s a difficult scene to watch, but there’s a river sequence that’s heartbreaking, disturbing, and brilliantly acted by Holland.