Based on the sci-fi trilogy by Patrick Ness, Chaos Walking tells the story of a girl named Viola (Daisy Ridley) who has crash-landed on a planet currently being colonized and settled by humans. There, she comes into contact with “the Noise,” an atmospheric natural force on the planet that puts all men’s thoughts on display. She meets a boy named Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland) who comes from a village where all the women have been killed by the native species. The two encounter dangerous obstacles as they embark on a journey in order for Viola to contact her people and warn them about the Noise.
The following review contains spoilers for the film, proceed with caution.
To start off with, Chaos Walking actually has a fantastic premise. Unlike a lot of properties based on YA novels, it does not split our main characters into personality groups and it manages to sidestep some stereotypes when it comes to stories of this nature. Still, despite a great universe with decent worldbuilding, the plot feels aimless. Yes, Viola and Todd are headed toward a communication tower so she can contact her ship, but not enough really happens in between to keep the pacing consistent.
The main villain of the film is played by Mads Mikkelsen, the Mayor of the town that Todd is from, David Prentiss. The problem with the menacing Mikkelsen, who gives a middling performance, is that he is actually one of the easiest characters to read despite his control of the Noise. When we learn that Todd’s town, Prentisstown, is devoid of women, we’re told that Prentiss blames the native species called the “Spackle” for killing them all. I don’t know about you, but that sounded like the most obvious lie to me. Of course, these men who keep talking about killing and “being a man” were the ones who killed all the women because they were jealous that women could still hide their thoughts. It’s extreme toxic masculinity, you see the twist coming a mile away.
What’s odd is that no one in the village, not the older men who participated, seems to remember or think back about this memory. There are no dreams of this massacre? I doubt it. And when Viola crash lands — being part of the “second wave” of settlers from Earth — it’s hard not to fear the worst for her. Todd, who is the youngest in the village and has never even seen a girl or woman in his life, is instantly curious and smitten by her. Of course, years of grooming from Prentiss has made Todd eager for his approval so his and Viola’s relationship starts off rocky.
It doesn’t help that she can hear all of his thoughts. I’m not sure if this is just a symptom of being a teenager or Todd himself, but his Noise is particularly loud. In order to hide his loud thoughts, he repeats his name over and over again but he can’t help himself. This lends itself to some of the comedic moments in the film but also some of the more frustrating ones. Holland is youthfully charming and amusing as a lovestruck puppy while traveling with Viola. A lot of his Noise with Viola is about how pretty she is and fantasies of kissing her (no one other than Holland could have pulled this off without being annoying), but his Noise also puts into words his self-consciousness in a way that you don’t often get in the film.
I actually think this is a strong part of the film. Being able to understand Todd’s inner thoughts is important in understanding him. This is normally a pitfall when we switch from the page to the screen, a lot of a characters’ inner dialogue is lost in the translation. The Noise gives him a depth that unfortunately Viola doesn’t get. We understand that he struggles with his own masculinity, repressing his feelings, and his loyalties to the Mayor and his adoptive fathers. Todd is a mess, but we understand him. Viola is a little less complex. We don’t know much about her life before landing on the planet. We know she was born on a ship and that she wants a new home, but much of the story revolves around her simply surviving.
But, the dubbing and reading of minds can get a little tiring when in groups, and each person’s use of the Noise is inconsistent. Although I love the visual effect of the Noise, looking like iridescent oily smoke swirling around someone’s head, it is often more annoying than useful. Some characters can create realistic-looking illusions, some can’t. How is it done? We’re never really sure, but Todd seems to be a master at it. Regardless, I can see this movie being impossible to understand for the hearing impaired without subtitles (as movies played in theaters so often are).
The Noise aside, there is a lot that is left underdeveloped here, particularly the Spackle. The native species plays a larger role in the latter two books of the trilogy, but Chaos Walking is so loosely based on the book series, that it would have benefitted them more to include more Spackle plot. This is a species that communicates only through the Noise and although they are perceived as threatening by Todd and the men of Prentisstown, Viola easily points out that the humans are the invading alien species in this situation. I could have done with fewer chase scenes and animals getting hurt, and a bit more about the Spackle and maybe about Todd’s gay dads played by Demián Bichir and Kurt Sutter.
Chaos Walking might lure in fans with its star-studded cast, but nothing in Doug Liman“s production hits quite strong enough. The potential was there and the concept is great, but ultimately it left me feeling unfulfilled.