Chaos Walking review: Troubled sci-fi epic is all bones, no meat

Doug Liman’s young adult adaptation is a semi-competent sci-fi yarn that suffers, if anything, from being too simple in its execution

Clarisse Loughrey
Friday 02 April 2021 06:57
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Chaos Walking trailer

Dir: Doug Liman. Starring: Daisy Ridley, Tom Holland, Mads Mikkelsen, Demián Bichir, Cynthia Erivo, Nick Jonas, David Oyelowo. 12, 109 mins

Considering its tumultuous production history, Chaos Walking deserves credit for not being a total disaster. It’s a semi-competent sci-fi yarn that suffers, if anything, from being too simple in its execution. An adaptation of the first book in Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy, The Knife of Never Letting Go, it was first floated around by Lionsgate all the way back in 2011, as an attempt to cash in on the emerging trend of young adult adaptations.

In Ness’s book, future colonists arrive to a distant but habitable planet, only to discover that its atmosphere causes men’s thoughts to be both audible and visible, forming around their heads in shimmering, watercolour clouds known as “the noise”. Charlie Kaufman, the master surrealist behind Being John Malkovich and I'm Thinking of Ending Things, first drafted the screenplay – who knows what kind of mortifying gaucheries he would have conjured up with that premise. But he dropped out and was replaced by a string of writers, with Doug Liman eventually coming onboard to direct. After the film tested poorly with audiences, a second director, Fede Álvarez, was brought in for reshoots.

But Liman has a history of pulling projects back from the brink – 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow was surprisingly well put together for a film that had two-thirds of its script thrown out mid-production. He’s a clean, efficient director, and so Chaos Walking works perfectly well as an A-to-B adventure about a female colonist (Daisy Ridley’s Viola) who crash lands on the planet and stumbles into the remote Prentisstown, only to discover that there are no women left alive. A boy (Tom Holland’s Todd), so enamoured with the first human girl he’s ever set eyes on, enthusiastically offers to guide her to a transmission tower so she can contact her mothership. On the way, they run, fall, fight, jump, and flounder in rapids.

Holland, of Marvel fame, and Ridley, of Star Wars fame, are well cast here, making the best of the natural charisma that made them such appealing franchise leads. Holland’s Todd is a nervous but well-meaning wreck whose "noise" blurts out things like “girl” and “pretty” without making him come across as a creep. Ridley’s greatest strength is the sincerity with which she expresses wonder – qualities that have been neatly amplified by putting her character in orange suspenders that nod to The Fifth Element’s equally curious Leeloo.

The town’s mayor, David Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen), maintains power through his ability to suppress his ‘noise’

But these are all building blocks that should exist in service of something far more complex and meaningful. Chaos Walking is all bones, no meat. It’s obvious the men feel threatened by this new vulnerability – the town’s mayor, David Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen, effortlessly menacing as always), maintains power through his ability to suppress his “noise”, while the local preacher (David Oyelowo) is driven mad by it.

But too many ideas are simply left unexamined. It never critiques how much its premise enforces a gender binary and it remains an entirely sexless film – we never get to witness the dynamics of an all-male town and the relationship between Todd’s adoptive fathers (Demián Bichir and Kurt Sutter) stops short of depicting any form of desire. Very few questions are asked about the planet’s colonisation and the fate of its indigenous population, the traditionally alien-like Spackle. This isn’t the kind of film that can afford to keep it light and frothy when there’s so much implied by its central premise. At some point in Chaos Walking’s production history, there may have been a version that lived up its promise. We’re doomed never to know.

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