The world of Young Adult fiction has come a long way since Harry Potter took over the world in the 90s, with the likes of “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent” and “The Maze Runner” being notable entries into the genre. And when these works become large enough, we get an obligatory film adaptation, with some spawning large film franchises, with others being forgotten as embarrassing interpretations.
“Chaos Walking”, based on “The Knife of Never Letting Go”, which is the first book in the “Chaos Walking” YA book series (they went the route of “The Dark Tower” in naming the first film off of the overall series), the film focuses on Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland), a teenage boy living on the distant planet of New World, in which everyone can hear and see visual representations of people’s thoughts, called the Noise. His world gets turned upside down when Viola Eade (Daisey Ridley) crash lands in his hometown of Prentisstown, a place in which all the woman where supposedly killed by the planet’s native species, The Spackle, because they do not emit Noise. With Prentisstown Mayor David Prentiss (Mads Mikkelson) planning on using her and the ship she came from to supposedly accomplish nefarious deeds (his motives weren’t exactly clear), Todd must protect Viola at all costs … because the movie said so.
I recently talked about “Chaos Walking” on the LAMBcast, the podcast of the Large Association of Movie Blogs, and I recommend checking it out, as I had a great roundtable discussion with fellow members of the LAMB. I didn’t give the film a high score on the podcast, and days later, it still hasn’t left that much of an impact on me, though I don’t hate the film.
The film suffers from never establishing its world or grounding its ideas, as the who, what, where, when and whys of the film will leave you with a question mark for most of the movie. As I said on the LAMBcast, I couldn’t help but nitpick the whole thing, with questions of: How isn’t Daisey Ridley dead in her opening scene? Her space capsule was clearly engulfed in flame, and she made impact on land; it’d be like surviving a plane crash. Why do the people of New World use old world tech like double barrel shotguns, and why do they use horses to get everywhere? Is this a backwater planet, like what we often see in “Firefly,” and this is just what they have? Why can’t anyone remember what a woman looks like, when it’s clear that they were a part of living memory as Todd remembers his mother, and the next town over (which seems like a short walk in the woods) has a woman mayor?
As I noted in the LAMBcast, this is usually a sign that a movie is boring for me, as science fiction films don’t necessarily have to be scientifically accurate, and we won’t expect them to. But when a film fails to hook you with its visual presentation, performances, concept and basic plot, its flaws become more glaring, and “Chaos Walking” has a lot of missing elements that were probably lost in rewrites or on the cutting room floor.
The problems lie within our two protagonists and our antagonist. Let’s start with Todd. Why is he helping Viola? He grew up in Prentisstown, and has known the Mayor all his life, but he just met this girl. His arc would work if she revealed something is greatly wrong in the town, but that’s not necessarily the case. He later has reason to run from Prentiss, as he kills one of his fathers (though the film botches it as the character who kills his father — played by Nick Jonas — is barely ever seen again in the film), but the film never recovers from rushing its inciting incident to the point where it makes no sense, which makes it extremely hard to be invested in our two leads.
Then there’s Viola. I think Ridley did a fine job as her, but she’s just not given enough to work with. Viola arrives startled and is a mute, until she starts to open up to Todd. Still, we learn little about her or her mission, other than that her grandparents joined the colony ship she arrived on, hoping to find a better life. But a as a character, she is shy, reclusive and is at times very resourceful, while at others not so much, and she doesn’t necessarily grow as a character, and she has little chemistry with Holland (in fact, she spends the entire film being annoyed by him). Todd and Viola’s solution to every problem seems to be running away in the woods — where they somehow always manage to outrun men on horseback — which leads to a very boring film.
Then there’s Mikkelson, who is truly wasted in this film. Even though Mikkelson is one of the best actors you can find to play a villain, he feels toned down and lame throughout this film. We don’t get a Mikkelson performance as seen in “Casino Royale” and “Hannibal”; if anything, his performance is similar to his portrayal of Galen Erso in “Rogue One”; we get what I like to call Good Guy Mads Mikkelson.
And its a shame because Mayor Prentiss, a villain eluded to be able to manipulate people’s perceptions through the Noise (perhaps even change memories?) could have been a truly terrifying and intelligent villain. But Mikkelson is never allowed to use his full range, and the script weighs down his character with a lot of illogical non sequiturs; this entire film is about a Mayor and his followers on horseback chasing down two people on foot; all he has to do to end the film is not stop riding, but he does so several times for no reason.
I liked parts of the last third of this film, because it has science fiction elements that intrigue me, but as a whole, this film didn’t do it for me. Visually and logically nonsensical, this film wastes its over $100 million budget on gimmicky Noise particle visuals, while failing to take advantage of its pretty decent cast. It’s one of the cheapest looking $100 million movies I’ve ever seen, with its interpretation of the alien New World looking exactly like the woods in any one part of North America.
Don’t go to the theaters to see this. If you have time to spare, I’d stream it when you can, but unless you like nitpicking flawed films, you might not get much enjoyment out of this.
“Chaos Walking” gets a 4/10