REVIEW: ‘Chaos Walking’ is a Frustrating Mess

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Chaos Walking

Oh Chaos Walking. Directed by Doug Liman, the long-delayed film features a screenplay from Patrick Ness and Christopher Ford adapted from Ness’ novel The Knife of Never Letting Go. To sum it up, Chaos Walking is a story about a dystopian world, a girl who crash lands on it, and a boy who can’t control his inner thoughts—which are visualized to the world around him in a phenomena caused by the planet called “Noise.”

First announced in 2011, Chaos Walking is finally having it’s theatrical debut this week after delays due to both extensive reshoots and COVID-19. Having already premiered in South Korea last month, the film it making its way to American audiences with a stacked cast of actors who are no stranger to science fiction including, Daisy Ridley, Tom Holland, Mads Mikkelsen, David Oyelowo, Demián Bichir, and Cynthia Erivo. But to be honest, this entire film leaves me with one question, what on Earth made anyone of this caliber of talent agree to be in this film?

If you’re not familiar with the premise of Chaos Walking, it takes place on New World, a human colonized planet 64 lightyears away from Earth. In the film, Todd (Tom Holland) discovers Viola (Daisy Ridley), a mysterious girl who crash lands on his planet, where all the women have disappeared and the men are afflicted by “the Noise,” a force that puts all their thoughts on display. And Todd, being the youngest and the only “boy” left in the town, is one of the most inexperienced in controlling his. With his thoughts raging for the world to see, Todd takes vows to protect Viola’s life from the threat of his town, forcing him to leave for the first time into a world he hasn’t known and learn the truth about the colony’s past.

By all rights, a phenomenal performance can save even the most headache of films, and so can great action sequences. But sometimes, like in Chaos Walking, everything fails at one time.

First, it fails from a technical standpoint. In a world where you can hear thought, simple narration wasn’t enough to showcase the loudness of the men in the towns or showcase their visceral reactions. That, I get. But the choice to visualize each and every thought of the men in the cast with rippling waves has a negative impact. While the Noise isn’t overwhelming when it’s just shown around one character, when multiple are in one scene, the rippling moments make it hard to focus on any one subject. Truthfully, while ambitious, the visualization of thoughts is nauseating to watch as someone who is prone to motion-sickness. Throw in Liman’s unsteady hand and excessive camera shake in the action sequences and large sequences are nearly unwatchable.

Chaos Walking

CONTENT WARNING: Chaos Walking and this review deal with feminicide (light spoilers below)

Chaos Walking also fails in its performances, not because the actors are bad, but because the Noise is in fact too much to render any solid emotional acting from any character. Additionally, much of the cast, and I could even argue our leads Ridley and Holland, aren’t given enough weight to make their lines count. Emotive notes come into the dialogue quickly and then disappear at the same pace not allowing you to get attached or at the bare minimum understand the characters on screen. In fact, out of everyone on screen, the only time I felt a connection to a character was with Todd’s dog.

Finally, the meat of the film offers little substance. I wanted to write about Chaos Walking without spoilers, and while I still intend to, there needs to be exploration of the film’s greatest flaw in order to justify my review: its plot. As a woman critic and fan of science fiction, I’m no stranger to cringing at plot points or throwaway lines that drip with some level of either misguided white-knighting or misogyny. But this film does both, in spades, to the point where at about the 20-minute mark I was affirmed that Viola was indeed in a woman’s worst nightmare: stuck in a place where, as the only woman, the entire male population wants to hurt you at the least and murder you at the worst.

While I have a relatively stable stomach when it comes to film premises, thanks to a love of revenge thrillers and horror films, there was something about the way that Chaos Walking was executed that unsettled me to my core. It wasn’t just that Daisy was surrounded by men looking to murder her just because she was a woman, but because of the gaze of the film that showcases Todd as the white knight to save Viola. To top that off Todd does this  while constantly creeping her out with his thoughts that very clearly see her as an object to be had and kept. But my unease deepened as the plot continued to unravel and the group of men loudly pursued Todd and VIola with their Noise raging—accompanied by an unhinged preacher who offered nothing in way of plot.

The core of the film is femicide. And a femicide committed by men too chickenshit to deal with the fact that women could hear their every thought and they couldn’t hear theirs. I’m not sure if Ness believed this take away to be some grand lecture against toxic masculinity, but the way it is executed on-camera doesn’t work. It’s disturbing to watch and even with the reveals of the plot, there are so many loose threads left hanging, even after we learn the main conflict.

The native lifeforms exist to be a scapegoat for the sins of men and then never explored (yeah, the running “story” is that savage aliens killed all the women – let that choice sink in). New towns are visited and then forgotten. Religion is introduced and then extinguished. Filial dynamics are introduced and then fall short. And despite attempting to build a world of advanced technology and a different history we learn nearly nothing. Nearly every element of the film appears in one scene to be forgotten in the next. Except the femicide of course. There are the bones of a sci-fi world that could have been expansive and detailed but instead, it’s left by the wayside. And at that point I’m unsure what’s worse, the way the film handles female trauma or the way it handles literally everything else.

Chaos Walking is loud and uncomfortable to watch in the absolute worst of ways. It screams at you just like Todd’s noise and says as much. It’s just there, annoying you, not making any sense, and not bringing much to the world around it.

Chaos Walking is in theaters March 5, 2021.

Chaos Walking
  • 2/10
    Rating - 2/10
2/10

TL;DR

Chaos Walking is loud and uncomfortable to watch in the absolute worst of ways. It screams at you just like Todd’s noise and says as much. It’s just there, annoying you, not making any sense, and not bringing much to the world around it.