Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley star in a bland sci-fi western, set on a planet where it's possible to hear other people's thoughts
They say it’s the thought that counts – but that isn't enough to save this mostly bland and forgettable attempt to adapt what has been called an unadaptable novel to the big screen, which hints at at least two more sequels I suspect will never come.
Chaos Walking is based on a popular YA book series by Patrick Ness, set on a planet where people can hear and sometimes see physical manifestations of each other’s thoughts. The premise is actually quite intriguing – a world lived at the mercy of your own uncontrollable thoughts is packed with horrific potential (just imagine what Michael Haneke could do with this idea). But this Chaos Walking, directed by journeyman Doug Liman and based on a script by Ness and co-writer Christopher Ford, makes for the most generic, brown-coloured stew of a film.
Shot all the way back in 2017 (but with the air of something made in 2007), Chaos Walking has lingered in post production for years, presumably because nobody could figure out a convincing way to make it work. In 2013, we heard Charlie Kaufman was involved – if only! Watching the final product, it appears half-realised, a cinematic shrug. But then why shoot a movie like this in the first place, unless you’d nailed the concept down and felt confident of the execution ?
Tom Holland plays a young, muscular man named Todd Hewitt (prepare to hear his name said over and over again) on the colonised planet known as “New World,” which essentially resembles a western frontier town. What makes living here particularly hellish is that the men – for reasons that are never explained – must live with an infliction called “The Noise,” meaning their thoughts are audible to everyone, sometimes manifesting as images in puffs of purple smoke.
There are no women here, until there is one: Viola Eade (Daisy Ridley) crash lands on the planet and is quickly viewed as a means of escape by the town's corrupt mayor, played in an untypically forgettable performance by the great Mads Mikkelsen. When he reveals a sinister plan to hijack Viola's rescue ship to escape New World, Todd decides to help Viola, their odd couple dynamic powered by the fact that she can literally see him thinking about him wanting to kiss her (he has never seen a girl). But what happened on this failed attempt to colonise a planet, and what really happened to the women?
Chaos Walking seems in an odd kind of rush to get its plot in motion – weird, because it doesn’t really have one. Ridley and Holland are fine, but they’re struggling against a movie that doesn’t know how to engage with its ideas in any real way, as though constantly afraid of biting off more than it can chew (hearing Todd's endless thoughts is for the most part headache-induing). They amble around in the woods for a while, make awkward conversation. Later, when the alien from Signs shows up, the movie flirts with intrigue – until the thread is quickly abandoned. It's a common issue. When Chaos Walking arrives at what should be a shocking or mind-blowing revelation, it treats it as though it's only mildly interesting. There are discoveries in this movie that a better movie would inject with the necessary weight, but Liman's film seems oddly indifferent to its own narrative twists and turns.
In moments where we hear Todd's cringe-worthy thoughts manifesting as audible mutterings – he cannot help but think “Yellow hair… pretty…” while looking at Viola – it's possible to imagine a film with a better grasp of the inherent comedy of all this – one that finds real funny in a bizarre idea, the same way Liman's superior sci-fi venture Edge of Tomorrow found the absurd comic potential in Tom Cruise's repeated deaths. Chaos Walking flirts with being more humorous, but ultimately settles for oddly neutered, allowing most of its jokes to disappear beneath the sound mix.
The film is never exactly unwatchable, and in its last half hour it does tap into a somewhat engaging line of action that's largely absent elsewhere. But the biggest problem is that this adaptation never engages with its central idea in any meaningful way. These people can hear each other’s thoughts… so what? Almost everything that happens could have happened without that element at play, meaning the conceit is only really here to annoy us for two hours for no good reason. This generic thriller, quite simply, hasn’t thought it through.
Chaos Walking is available to stream on digital platforms from 2 April.Where to watch