Signature pieces in Disney’s two biggest properties team up in the new sci-fi adventure “Chaos Walking” from director Doug Liman. Tom Holland (the MCU’s Spider-Man) and Daisy Ridley (a now prominent Jedi in the Star Wars universe) star in this adaptation of the first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy from author Patrick Ness. The film has been in the works for some time with principal photography wrapping up way back in 2017. Poor screen tests led to a number of reshoots which had to be delayed due to the other franchise commitments of its two stars.
With its rocky production behind it, “Chaos Walking” is finally set for its proper release. In addition to Holland and Ridley, the film packs a solid supporting cast including Mads Mikkelsen, Cynthia Erivo, David Oyelowo, Demián Bichir, and Nick Jonas. Ness writes the screenplay along with Christopher Ford. What we get is a movie built on a compelling and imaginative premise that realizes much of its potential. At the same time it leaves way too many loose ends, making it feel like a frustrating first installment rather than its own well-rounded movie.
Holland plays Todd Hewitt, a boy who is part of an all-male colony on a distant planet called New World. As a mysterious side-effect of living on the planet, each male is afflicted with something they call “the Noise”. It puts every thought in their head on display, allowing others to hear (and in some cases see) what they are thinking. It’s a torturous condition that lays everything bare and only a few have learned how to suppress and control it. Liman visualizes the Noise as a milky haze that swirls around a person’s head like smoke whenever they have a thought. It then dissipates as quickly as it comes. It’s a crafty and effective visual.
Things are shaken up when Todd discovers a space capsule that has crash-landed on the planet. Among the wreckage is Viola (Ridley), the lone survivor and the first girl Todd has ever seen. Immediately his mind kicks into overdrive and his Noise gives away his curiosity and attraction. But it’s quickly noticed that Viola has no Noise. Amazed, Todd takes her to David Prentiss, the colony’s fur coat-clad Mayor who informs her that only men are afflicted with the Noise. He goes on to tell her about a war against a native species that overtook their colony and slaughtered all the women. Viola reveals that she is part of a scouting mission sent from a bigger ship in the planet’s orbit. If the Mayor can help her contact her ship they can send down a rescue team.
But after overhearing the Mayor’s nefarious intentions, Viola flees. In the meantime Todd learns some unsettling truths about the colony’s past that have been hidden from the people by those in power. After his adopted father Ben (Bichir) reveals the long held secret of a second colony, Todd tracks down Viola and the two head off to find the settlement hoping the people there can help her contact her ship. Like any good antagonist, the Mayor and his band of loyalists including his son Davy (Jonas) pursue them setting up the movie’s central conflict.
Along the way we’re fed morsels of much-needed backstory yet so many details are missing. The extent of the Mayor’s deception, his greater ambitions aside from being a standard-issue megalomaniac, anything about the native inhabitants known as the Spackle, a better understanding of the Noise. So much is passed over and unaddressed. Characters suffer as much as the story. Take Oyelowo’s Aaron who everyone refers to as Preacher. He’s a mysteriously wicked presence; a violent and tormented man ravaged by his Noise. He’s also woefully underwritten and left to skulk around with little for us latch onto. Erivo and the people of the second colony don’t fare much better. You get the sense they have an entire story worth telling, but like so many other things they are skimmed over and more-or-less forgotten.
On the positive side, the film and the two lead characters are aided by some good chemistry between Holland and Ridley. Todd’s tell-all mind adds a fun twist to their relationship which the movie frequently plays around with. Hearing his thoughts constantly sell him out can be terrifying around enemies but also pretty funny when he’s with Viola and leads to him constantly chirping at himself “hide your Noise, hide your Noise“. And as you would expect, Mikkelsen makes for a menacing baddie even though so much about his character is glossed over leaving him feeling less of a threat than he could have been. But Mikkelsen is always reliable, even when the material isn’t.
“Chaos Walking” ends up being a weird experience. It’s a movie I enjoyed on a surface level, but the slightest look deeper leaves you with far more questions than answers. Even the ending fails to give any satisfying conclusion, wrapping up like a television episode that expects you to tune in next week. Maybe there are franchise aspirations and that’s why so much is left unexplained. But this feels different – like a movie that has all the pieces (a good cast, nice visuals, interesting premise) but is missing the narrative glue that holds them all together. Frankly, I’d be really surprised if a second installment ever sees the light of day. “Chaos Walking” opens in theaters this Friday.
VERDICT – 2.5 STARS