The days of the big-budget, studio-backed dystopian YA novel adaptation are long behind us, and it feels like this went out of style some time ago. However, as an adult child who kind of never stopped reading young adult fiction well into his twenties, I’ve always had a soft spot for this kind of material. However, I had not heard of Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking series, a critically acclaimed series of novels which also seems to have suffered a long and exhausting journey to the big screen as well.
Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland) is a young man living on the ‘New World’, a dystopian post-apocalyptic hell world where there are no women and everyone can hear and see each other’s thoughts via colorful bubbles that appear around your head. This sensation is referred to as ‘the noise.’ Viola (Daisy Ridley) crash-lands onto this planet, and is the only survivor on her ship from another planet. She has no idea where her home is or what her life should be, and for that matter neither does Todd. The two must team up to presumably save each other and find a way to survive amid the terrifying backdrop where the situation grows more dire by the day.
Lionsgate acquired the rights to the Chaos Walking series in 2011, around the time the dystopian YA novel movie was still a hot commodity. It kind of lingered in development hell until the summer of 2017, when Chaos Walking started and completed principal photography. For context, this was before Tom Holland began filming Spider Man: Far From Home and before Daisy Ridley filmed Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Due to poorly received test screenings, Chaos Walking had to undergo some reshoots, I’m told to reshape the entire third act. The longer this journey to a finished product became, the less likely it appeared for this film to spawn its own franchise, so they just kind of ended this one film the same way the series ends. And there’s a lot of reasons this doesn’t work.
But I’ll start with why this film doesn’t work on its own. Chaos Walking is a great, big, expensive, ugly fiasco with messy world building, no real characters and very little reason to care about anything that’s going on. The first reason it doesn’t work is the framing device of ‘the noise’. Seeing and hearing a character’s internal monologue should be a plus – it should allow for some really interesting character development and really give us an image of who these stoic, soft-spoken characters are on a more personal level. Instead, you just want to pop those bubbles constantly as we listen to a bunch of Tom Holland voiceover about how much he wants to kiss Daisy Ridley.
Second, Ridley’s character isn’t possessed by ‘the noise’, and she doesn’t speak very much, so she’s barely a character at all. She just kind of looks terrified all the time until she kind of lets her guard down near the end. We’re supposed to root for Holland and Ridley, presumably taken by their alleged chemistry as a couple, by the time we reach the end, I couldn’t have cared less. I wasn’t invested in where their story would go and I certainly don’t want to see more of these characters in any future project. Holland and Ridley have both moved beyond this kind of thing, and I say this about two young actors who are still very much figuring out where their place in Hollywood is. No one should have to do a sequel to this movie.
Also, it’s worth pointing out that Todd is raised by two men who live in the same house and share a bed, and yet the story never explores this – are they friends, are they lovers, is this like a prison bunk bed situation? There’s so much gay subtext in a story set in a world where there are no women, and the film could not care less about addressing this in any way. Patrick Ness, author of the novels who co-wrote the screenplay, is openly gay himself, and apparently the books don’t acknowledge this in any meaningful way either, so this doesn’t make a lot of sense.
I need to quickly talk about the supporting cast because we’ve got some good names being wasted here, besides just Holland and Ridley. Demián Bichir is one of Todd’s father figures, and he certainly has better things to do. I also didn’t realize Cynthia Erivo was in this, and I’m a big fan of hers from her Broadway days, and I make an effort to follow where her career is going – and I had no idea she was in this before she popped up in front of me. The film also wastes Nick Jonas and David Oyelowo in roles that cumulate in about five minutes of screentime each. Mads Mikkelsen is having a pretty good time as the villainous mayor, however.
Doug Liman directed this, who has a track record kind of split down the middle as a filmmaker. Half of what he’s made, I’ve really liked and about half of it is garbage. For instance, nobody really liked his HBO Max pandemic heist rom-com Locked Down, released earlier this year, and I liked that quite a lot. This just seems like a project that nobody’s heart was ever really in, and it feels like the project was always that way. This feels like a studio throwing a bunch of money at a project, and a lot of people telling them it won’t get made, and a studio’s insistence on proving everybody wrong. Chaos Walking did get made, but should it have, really?
I kept thinking during the majority of Chaos Walking’s running time, this has got to be more interesting as a novel. And I’m sure it is – friends of mine have raved about these books and explained parts of it that would be undeniably hard to adapt even under the best of circumstances. Maybe if I’d read the novel prior to going into this film, I would have had more appreciation for what it tried to do. But, a standalone feature film – especially one like this with a giant budget, visual effects and big-name movie stars – should not put that responsibility on its viewer. Judging on its own merits, Chaos Walking is pretty close to what I’d call an unmitigated disaster. Don’t expect a sequel to this one.