Starring Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley, this long-delayed space western is tedious, generic and struggles with its premise.
March 04, 2021
From battles in a galaxy far, far away to caped crusaders trying to save the day, cinema's big franchises currently dominate popular culture. They spark months of anticipation before each new film hits screens, top the box office, inspire constant chatter year-round and have even begun to sink their teeth into TV. And, they influence how audiences see other features, too — because watching almost any flick at present involves spotting cast members from Hollywood's ongoing blockbuster sagas. In Chaos Walking's case, for instance, the most recent Spider-Man finds his life disrupted when Star Wars' latest heroine crash-lands on his planet. In the tense aftermath, another Star Wars alumni and an Alien franchise veteran are involved, as is an actor with ties to Star Wars and Marvel, and an upcoming role in the Harry Potter realm. Boiling a feature down to the film behemoths also on its stars' resumes is simplistic, but it's a movie marketer's dream, with the powers-that-be hoping their talent will bring their existing aficionados with them. Here, it's also the most interesting thing about this tedious and generic space western.
Adapted from the book series of the same name, Chaos Walking has weathered a difficult path to cinemas. It releases ten years after the rights to turn Patrick Ness' novels into films were first acquired, four years since the movie was originally shot and two years after major reshoots following unfavourable test screenings. The feature went through a plethora of rewrites, with I'm Thinking of Ending Things' Charlie Kaufman on scripting duties at one point, and Ness (A Monster Calls) and Spider-Man: Homecoming's Christopher Ford getting the final credit. Navigating such a mess rarely bodes well for a movie, so the fact that Chaos Walking proves dull and derivative shouldn't come as a surprise. It's hard to see how it might've fared better, though, with its premise an instant struggle. Set in 2257, the film follows colonists from earth on a planet called New World, who are plagued by a strange phenomenon. A multi-coloured haze hovers around men's heads — and only men — showing their every thought. The sensation has been dubbed 'the noise', and experiencing it while watching sure is rackety.
In his pioneer village, teenager Todd (Tom Holland, The Devil All the Time) can rarely control his noise. While the Mayor (Mads Mikkelsen, Another Round) is able to filter the words and images that project from his mind — and also rock a furry red coat and wide-brimmed hat far better than anyone should — few others have the same ability. Seeing what everyone is thinking is a tricky way to live at the best of times, and it applies to the entire population, because women have been wiped out in a war attributed to the planet's original inhabitants. But Todd's troubles multiply when he discovers a spaceship, as well as Viola (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker), its sole surviving occupant. The mayor and his followers don't take kindly to the first female in their midst for years; however, supported by his adoptive fathers Ben (Demian Bichir, The Midnight Sky) and Cillian (Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter), Todd isn't willing to surrender the only girl he's ever seen to an angry mob.
On the page, the Chaos Walking series dates back to 2008, when first instalment The Knife of Never Letting Go hit bookshelves — but its tale of toxic masculinity feels timely in the current social, political and cultural climate. That said, this isn't a complex, layered or thoughtful film. Instead, it's content to stress its themes in such a broad and easy manner that getting Holland to hold up a sign saying "the patriarchy is bad" would've been more subtle. Cue one-note villains, including Mikkelsen's mayor and David Oyelowo (another The Midnight Sky cast member) as a cartoonishly frenzied preacher. Cue Todd's self-reprimands to "be a man", too. There's no faulting the underlying idea that constantly enforcing stereotypical visions of manhood has damaging consequences, and that the behaviour it inspires (and the sense of entitlement that goes with it) is dangerous and destructive. But Chaos Walking really just uses these notions as a backdrop for a predictable and formulaic dystopian story, and as a handy reason to motivate its conflicts.
As told here, the material is so thin and blunt — and so desperately endeavouring to set up a Hunger Games-esque franchise — that thinking about Holland, Ridley and their co-stars' roles elsewhere comes naturally. The awkwardness that has served Holland so well as Spider-Man peeks through, and Ridley's Star Wars steeliness is on full display, but neither actor is ever tasked with extending their talents. Mikkelsen, Oyelowo and Bichir are only asked to hit one note (nefarious, maniacal and caring, respectively), while Cynthia Erivo (The Outsider) is criminally underused. With all that distracting and frustrating noise literally hanging around and screaming for attention, it's hard for anyone to stand out. It's harder still in a movie that plays like a hodgepodge of far better sci-fi and western fare. Just try to see the orange suspenders that Ridley sports in the second half — or realise that this is a flick about a woman falling out of the sky and into a man's life, who then has to protect her on her quest to save the world as everyone knows it — and not wish you were watching The Fifth Element instead.
He has Swingers, Go, Mr and Mrs Smith and American Made to his name, but filmmaker Doug Liman is no stranger to helming movies that recall 90s greats. While Edge of Tomorrow instantly impressed for many reasons, using time-loop trickery in a smart action flick and never just feeling like a cheap Groundhog Day ripoff was chief among them. Sadly, Liman doesn't have the same luck with Chaos Walking. Even its busy chase and fight scenes are a slog, although the feature's frontier-town production design and clever visual use of a buried spaceship do catch the eye. As for everything else, 'noise' is the absolute right word for it.