Well, here we are again. A beloved book, the first part of a trilogy, a strong cast… and a mess of a film. Chaos Walking? I wish! This is more like Disorganised Wandering! If you love the book, it’s best to look away while this one is put out of its misery.
Acclaimed gay YA author Patrick Ness is a big deal. His books are mainstream hits that weave big emotions, lots of action, high concepts and strong LGBTQI+ representation through them, and the sci-fi Chaos Walking trilogy is where he made his name.
Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland) is a thirteen year old boy born and bred in a world where all men telepathically project their thoughts without control; they call it The Noise. There are no women, having all died when they first came to this planet and fought with the indigenous race they call the Spackle. Raised as the adopted son of a gay couple, he is the youngest person on the planet. That is until a young girl named Viola (Daisy Ridley) turns up in a crashed spacecraft and Todd learns that not everything he’s been taught to believe is the truth. To protect her, Todd must take her away from the only place he’s ever known, to try to find a way for her to contact her mothership.
Do you remember in 2019 when Fox showed Rent: Live, but due to a last minute cast injury they had to screen the run-though instead of broadcast the show live? There was a palpable lack of ‘show-energy’ to the final product. That’s what Chaos Walking feels like. Essentially this is a chase movie à la The Fugitive, but there is no tension to the chase. A languid edit reduces everything to TV-movie basics.
While it isn’t the hot-mess that The Dark Tower was, it is resolutely dull, which is unusual for director Doug Liman (the filmmaker behind The Bourne Identity, Mr & Mrs Smith and Edge of Tomorrow) and a cast of terrific actors (including Mads Mikkelsen, David Oyelowo, and Cynthia Erivo). There is a lack of chemistry between Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley who both essentially play versions of their more popular characters, Spider-Man’s Peter Parker and Star Wars’ Rey. Thankfully Holland’s bumbling charm, and some obviously gratuitous body shots, keep things light.
You can tell that the screenwriters, Ness and Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Christopher Ford, have tried to avoid the pitfalls of previous book-to-screen adaptations by streamlining the plot (the film covers roughly one half of the book, The Knife of Never Letting Go), but in the process they have ended up over-simplifying it.
Throughout the film, there is a distinct lack of discovery. The worldbuilding is minimal, and moments that should feel shocking are ruined by clumsy attempts to add more action; there is a particularly egregious opening sequence in Viola’s ridiculously designed spaceship as it crashes, a crash that seemingly no one on the planet notices). The indigenous Spackle make a single appearance—also drastically altered from the book—and both Todd and Viola seem to take everything in their stride, feeling less like the book’s precocious teenagers and more like, well 20-somethings. To its credit, Chaos Walking ends neatly. There is no attempt to lead into a sequel or expand the world for more stories. Everyone involved clearly knew this was the end of the road.
It’s a shame, as the series of books is engagingly examines life in a world with too much information, toxic-masculinity, coercive control and general coming of age stuff. Sadly, this is all left behind in a film that is desperately seeking mediocrity.
Of course, some of us have been here before. Philip Pullman’s revolutionary His Dark Materials novels also received the lacklustre Hollywood treatment with The Golden Compass in 2007, and while the disappointment stung at the time, we have since gained the more faithful TV adaptation from the BBC and HBO. Fingers crossed the Chaos Walking trilogy gets the same treatment in the future.
By Chad Armstrong
Chaos Walking is in theaters now.
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