Maybe there’s a reason that the YA dystopian genre had been long left behind by Hollywood. Films like The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Maze Runner had their heyday in the early 2010s, but the premise of beautiful teens and twenty-somethings having to reckon with their share of authoritarian governments/world-ending threats/love triangles had run its course. But there will always be a few stragglers to a Hollywood trend, and the long-delayed Chaos Walking is one of them.
Directed by Doug Liman, Chaos Walking was unquestionably meant to be the next big franchise for Star Wars and Spider-Man: Homecoming breakout stars Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland, respectively, but rewrites, poor test screenings, and other various behind-the-scenes problems would shelve the movie until it became a strange relic of another time. And that’s what Chaos Walking is: a relic, but an odd one at that, one that bears all the hallmarks of a standard YA dystopian movie, but with a shockingly grim and dark tone that appears to be part of an ill-conceived attempt to set it apart from the pack.
Based on the first book of Patrick Ness‘ Chaos Walking trilogy, The Knife of Never Letting Go, Chaos Walking is set in a distant future, on a distant planet colonized by humans. But on this planet, no women remain while the men are all afflicted by “the Noise,” a force that puts all their thoughts on display. Holland stars as Todd Hewitt, a boy living in the settlement of Prentisstown who has particular trouble controlling his “Noise,” his thoughts spilling out in a barrage of images and whispered half-thoughts, which take the form of colored swirls at constantly revolve around his head. The effects that depict the “Noise” are perhaps the most striking thing to come out of the film — swirls that turn into images at the drop of a hat; images that take on a life on their own and become birds, or rabbits, bounding out from the heads of their creators, sometimes even taking solid effect if the thought is strong enough. It becomes a pivotal part of Chaos Walking, both in-universe (the Noise is used simultaneously as currency, as brute force, or as bargaining chips) and in keeping the film from becoming too much of a snooze.
Todd spends his time trying to keep his Noise under control while dutifully attending to his chores on the farm run by his adoptive fathers (Demián Bichir and Kurt Sutter), his parents having died when he was young in the war with the Spackle, the natives of the world, who he was told released a “germ” that was particularly fatal to women. But Todd desperately wants to impress the mayor of Prentisstown, David Prentiss (a fabulous fur coat-wearing Mads Mikkelsen), frequently putting him at odds with David’s cruel son (Nick Jonas, great at playing assholes).
But the fragile harmony of Todd’s life is shattered with the arrival of Viola (Ridley), a woman who crash lands on the planet after her scouting spaceship is torn to pieces by the force which gives its male inhabitants the “Noise.” The only survivor of the spaceship, Viola is discovered by Todd, who panics upon seeing the first girl in his life, and accidentally informs the entire village about her. Ridley, sporting a particularly bad blonde wig, barely speaks for the first half of the movie, leading Todd to think that Viola is mute, until he finally earns her trust by helping her escape David Prentiss and his legions of brainwashed minions, who want to kill her to prevent her from sending a message for rescue. There only hope: to make their way across the dangerous planet to another settlement, led by the tough-as-nails Hildy Black (Cynthia Erivo).
It’s all very par for the course for a YA dystopian movie: an oppressive regime that attempts to control its people through fear, a young protagonist (significantly aged up from the books) whose worldview is completely changed in a hamfisted metaphor for puberty, a central romance between two equally attractive leads. Chaos Walking even throws in a cute dog as a sidekick. The script is surprisingly banal for one that has undergone so many drafts and had a horde of screenwriters like Charlie Kaufman, Jamie Linden, John Lee Hancock, Gary Spinelli, and Lindsey Beer touching it up at one point. The final version is ultimately penned by book author Patrick Ness with Christopher Ford, and it’s one that feels exceedingly uninspired, except for the occasional shocks of gruesome violence and odd moments of naivety from Holland’s Todd (including him getting butt naked in front of Viola…to fight a giant squid) that feel like a leftover from when the character was younger or when the story was weirder.
So Liman, who has proved he can make inspired sci-fi movies before with films like Edge of Tomorrow, attempts to elevate Chaos Walking from the rest of its YA compatriots by giving it an intensely dark and grim tone. There’s no humor to be found in this movie, only violence and death, and the occasional naked squid fight (I still don’t know who that scene was for). And as if to hammer in how bleak this movie is, Chaos Walking makes sure to establish the stakes with shocking moments of animal cruelty. I won’t say what happens to the dog. The talented supporting cast is given little to do other than grimace or flaunt their fur coats, or in David Oyelowo‘s case, scream fire-and-brimstone verses as the town’s vengeful preacher who has it out for Todd and Viola. Holland and Ridley give serviceable performances as plucky YA protagonists who just want a better life.
Other than a few inventive sequences around the film’s central conceit of “the Noise,” Chaos Walking is a grim retread of the YA dystopian story that offers nothing else but a misguided attempt to elevate the genre through more a darker, more “adult” tone. It ends up being little more than a joyless exercise with bad wigs.
/Film Rating: 4 out of 10
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