100 years in the future, Todd Hewitt discovers Viola, a mysterious girl who crash lands on his planet.
Despite its big budget, Doug Liman’s film mainly reminded me of those 1970s/80s sci fi serials on British TV that involve endless running through Oxfordshire woodland – there is lots of dashing through trees, some visual effects, one spacegirl and one solitary humanoid creature. (As a parent of smallish children I was also reminded of Shaun The Sheep: Farmageddon – sorry, Doug.)
There are also plenty of interesting ideas and allegories but they aren’t followed through, which is a shame (and a waste).
It’s not the total disaster its troubled history might suggest though, and the cast is top-notch. Tom Holland is terrific as a buffeted teen broaching his past, and he and Daisy Ridley – two spiky orphans navigating their first forays into adulthood – have good chemistry.
Mads Mikkelsen, too, despite his King of the Red Squirrels fur coat, is brooding and always-threatening as Mayor Prentiss, a man who has given his name to the town but is able to hold his own secrets close to his chest.
The film’s title is explained at the start of the movie: it’s a fictional quote from an unnamed settler on New World, the Oxfordshire-like planet which humans have colonised.
New World is a haven that has turned out not to be, its inhabitants apparently cut off from Earth, the spaceship carrying the second wave of settlers mysteriously absent from the skies above.
Despite its leafy landscape this is a planet of inescapable noise, literally: on landing all the male incomers find their thoughts blaring out. Those thoughts are illustrated by purple and green oily mists around their heads, a shrieking aurora borealis of secrets both pivotal and mundane.
The Noise, this constant cacophony of battling soliloquies and dull thoughts, crows yet crushes, stifling tiny but important ideas that cannot push through. It’s exhausting for the characters and gave me a headache within a couple of minutes.
Chaos Walking focuses on the secrets and lies of the settlers, specifically the residents of Prentisstown, a small settlement where its residents, all male, are ruled by Mayor Mads in a sort of cod-Wild West.
Teenager Todd (Holland) has been brought up by his two adoptive fathers, Ben and Cillian (Demián Bichir and Kurt Sutter, a touching pairing): big bearded men, part-biker and part-19th century frontiersmen, who have secretly long-planned how to save their son.
One day Todd comes across Viola (Daisy Ridley), the only survivor of a crash-landed space module, sent ahead before a mega-spaceship lands with its cargo of 4000 people. She’s caught and brought to Prentisstown, but escapes with Todd and his dog Manchee; she needs to get to another settlement to contact the ship and warn them or she’ll be stranded, though Prentiss whips his men up into a frenzy that their lives will be ruined by the new settlers’ arrival.
Pursued by Prentiss and the men, the two teens trek through the forests to Farbranch, another settlement Todd has never seen, though it too has reverted to a version of the good old, bad old days. Viola has the upper hand in their relationship, an enigma purely because Todd can’t tell what she’s thinking while every teenage hormonal surge he experiences results in an unwanted outpouring of his feelings for her. It’s not a particularly exciting trip, and this isn’t a particularly exciting film, a surprise as there are so many good ideas itching for more space.
While I was never excited, neither did I actively dislike it. Chaos Walking is just undercooked, and over-flavoured. Holland and Ridley are good together, though he wins out: nervy, and, thanks to The Noise, wearing his heart on his sleeve. He’s never seen a girl before; she represents all women to him as she reads aloud the journal of his late mother, so he can finally recreate her in his mind.
Chaos Walking is about how we feel and cope in an age of information overload, particularly the young who have known nothing else. For Todd, the youngest Prentisstown resident, The Noise has always been there – for nearly everyone else, there was a time before all this that they didn’t know they should appreciate.
The Noise, now the women are gone, should be a great leveller, though actually it means the most powerful are those who can control their own. Like a reputational clean-up consultant, burying online histories of celebrities that have proved problematic, they know they can’t get rid of it but they can produce lots more information around it that drowns out the bad stuff.
The metaphors are blatant, though they don’t really go anywhere. This is a movie that blazes bright at the start before spluttering and fizzling out. The dialogue in the film is often really hard to hear. Is that deliberate?
Todd is better than most at surrounding his true thoughts with boring, banal chatter to stop Prentiss reading him, something which makes Prentiss’s son Davy jealous (there is little to Davy and he might as well not be there).
Cynthia Erivo plays Hildy, the mayor of Farbranch, in control and always onto threats of violence. Farbranch may be peopled by deliberately low-tech luddites but they have a Black woman in charge.
Unfortunately beyond Todd and Prentiss (Mikkelsen is never a pantomime villain), no one is well-drawn. Not even Viola, who is so much of an enigma as to be almost a blank page. Fire and brimstone preacher Aaron, played by David Oyelowo, is an often-blistering presence on the edges, but only becomes really interesting near the end.
Chaos Walking is engaging but not engrossing. Still, the motherless Todd is someone you root for, tender-aged but always learning what can be fought, what can be run from, and what you have to learn to live with.
Read my (very spoilery) article Shhh! Chaos Walking explained.
Chaos Walking is available on digital platforms in the UK from 2 April. It was released in the US in March:
Watch the trailer now: