Chaos Walking Review: The Little Dystopian Thriller That Could

Doug Liman's Chaos Walking adaptation has long felt like it was destined for failure. Getting Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley to star in a dystopian YA thriller that could potentially turn into a franchise is a smart move, and it made people genuinely excited when it was announced. The problem is that it was announced almost five years ago. Holland was the brand-new Spider-Man and Ridley just led Star Wars back into the record books. They shot Chaos Walking in 2017, saw the film get delayed, returned for massive reshoots after some rough early screenings, and watched the pandemic cause another release delay.

Chaos Walking soon became a running joke, a film that was better served as an expensive punchline because it was never going to see the light of day. To top it all off, the movie is now hitting theaters at a time when it's not safe to do so in most places, so not many people are actually going to see it. The most frustrating thing about all of this is that, for a movie that so many wrote off years before actually seeing it, Chaos Walking isn't bad.

Holland stars in Chaos Walking as Todd, a young man born on an Earth-like planet known as "New World." This planet is inhabited by only men, due to a tragedy involving all of the women years ago. To make matters worse, New World has given each of its settlers a "gift" called the Noise, which means that all of their inner thoughts are made very public, emitting loudly above them as they try to process on their own. Things take a turn when Viola (Ridley) crash lands on New World and becomes the only survivor of her scouting party from the space station. Not only has Todd never seen a girl, but he quickly realizes that she doesn't have the Noise, which makes her dangerous in the eyes of his settlement's mayor (Mads Mikkelsen) and the local religious fanatic (David Oyelowo).

There are a lot of little storylines going on in this journey through New World, which makes sense given the source material. Chaos Walking is an adaptation of The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy from author Patrick Ness. There are ideas in Chaos Walking — seeds being planted — that are supposed to help build a three-movie world. Even if it were just focusing on one book at a time, it's hard to trim down everything from the original work into a two-hour film. Things had to be cut.

Unfortunately, at times, Liman focused on cutting down the development of key side characters or extra scenes that genuinely would've helped the plot, rather than trimming off the fat and zeroing in on a single idea. To put it more simply, there are a lot of really good stories and themes that feel rush or unfinished, instead of a more direct, contained narrative that remains satisfying from beginning to end.

Ness' novels hit on a lot of really great topics, and some of them shine through in Chaos Walking. The Noise creates a great through-line about the weakness of men, and how boys are often taught that vulnerability is a weakness, rather than a strength. There's a beautiful scene in the middle of the film that sets up an entire subplot about colonialist oppression, but it never gets brought up again. Certain characters are treated the same way.

Oyelowo's Aaron is probably the most intriguing villain of the entire story, only to be swiftly written off in the third act. Oyelowo, Mikkelsen, Cynthia Erivo, Demian Bichir, and Kurt Sutter aren't on-screen nearly as much as you'd like, but they all deliver as well as you'd expect them to. It's even fun to watch Nick Jonas try his hand at being the bad guy. This is a genuinely talented group!

While it's disappointing not to get more from some of these performers, we are treated to a ton of time with Holland and Ridley. It's very clear in Chaos Walking, even in its most troubling scenes, why these actors were chosen to anchor the two biggest franchises on the planet. Holland's earnestness is rivaled only by Ridley's stern curiosity. They could make a film about paint drying and it would be hard not to enjoy it.

In a way, their performances capture the reason why Chaos Walking actually manages to work when all is said and done. They both play underdogs for vastly different reasons, but together they find a way to survive. The deck has been stacked against Chaos Walking for years, and there are parts of the movie that still don't quite work despite the insane amount of money spent on reshoots.

But there's a fun and determined soul at the center of this story. Pair that with some great action sequences and two of the industry's brightest young stars, and you've got a film that endears against all odds.

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Rating: 3 out of 5

Chaos Walking is now playing in theaters.