“Chaos Walking” is the rare film this year that does not have the coronavirus pandemic to blame for its constantly fluctuating release date. Long before movie theaters shut down in response to Covid, the film already had a host of issues holding it back, from a slew of different writers, directors and production companies to poor test screenings and re-shoots. But now here we are, nearly four years after principal photography began, and the film has finally arrived.
So, why the history lesson? Well, while the crazy production schedule no doubt contributes to the film’s issues, many will simply see the negativity surrounding the film and pile on – or avoid it altogether – but I’m here to tell you to give it a chance.
Set in the future, “Chaos Walking” is the story of a colony made up solely of men. Something about the atmosphere of the planet allows all thoughts of the male population to be heard and seen, a phenomena known as “The Noise.” Long gone are the women, who were immune to the noise, but have since all been killed by the native alien species simply called “The Spackle.”
Tom Holland stars as Todd Hewitt, the youngest member of the colony, who we see doing his best to control his Noise and be a productive member of society. It would seem that to do this, one has to please Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen), a man whose status in the colony is only further emphasized by his equally impressive fur coat.
When a mysterious female is discovered by Todd, the story kicks into gear. Viola (Daisy Ridley) must turn to Todd as her only help, however the chemistry between Ridley and Holland isn’t quite put together, which makes their teaming up hard to believe. There are some glimmering moments, but unfortunately, Ridley is more reduced to the role of Holland’s gaze rather than a fully fleshed-out heroine. The cracks in the script start to make themselves known when the main characters are not given any room to be anything but elements to move the plot forward. As the bare bones characters are quickly devolved into archetypes, everything simply feels a little too “on the nose,” like the crazy preacher’s Noise being seen as fire and brimstone, for example.
Director Doug Liman probably did not envision himself releasing two films during the pandemic. Where as his first film faltered due to the rushed filming in order to make good on it being a “pandemic film” of its time, he now finds himself on the opposite side with a film that has problems because it sat idle for far too long. Liman knows science fiction – “Edge of Tomorrow” is one of the best sci-fi films of the last decade – and his proclivity and strengths as a director often shine through problematic story elements. His conceptualization of the Noise in “Chaos Walking” finds many ways to be clever enough to keep the audience on its toes, while also delivering a handful of hearty laughs, as Todd’s innermost thoughts are exposed around the only girl he’s ever seen. Liman has a keen eye for what makes something futuristic yet familiar and accessible, and this film would be hard-pressed to find a better captain to steer the ship.
Holland has proven himself to have enough star power to lead a film, and he does so here again. As the main protagonist he has a bit more emotional waters to tread through than the rest of his castmate, and he does rise to the challenge. With a supporting cast often disappearing, it is clear the rewrites and reshoots interfered with the timeline. Nick Jonas plays the villainous son of Prentiss, but he’s only here to sneer at Holland and do little else. Demián Bichir, Cynthia Erivo and David Oyelowo needed a few more scenes to ground the story and make the film feel more full and complete. Mikkelsen, meanwhile, does what he always does: brings his absolute A-game. Another unfortunate victim of the weak script is his iniquitous character, though, as his motives are unclear and undefined. We know he’s after the girl and sees her as some sort of threat, but there is just not enough substance to make him either pitiable or hated. When we get to the obligatory “bad guy versus good guy” showdown, it comes off as rushed and anti-climactic.
Despite all its woes, “Chaos Walking” delivers a super fun adventure full of aliens, thrills, mystery and a space girl, for those willing to look past the weak script. The special effects are top-notch, adding to the world and not distracting. The film is an above-average action romp that will scratch that itch, and while it may not stick every landing, what it does get right is highly enjoyable.
“Chaos Walking” is now playing in select theaters.
Film critic and member of the North Carolina Film Critic Association.