It’s something of a minor miracle that Chaos Walking, the long-awaited adaptation of Patrick Ness’ celebrated novel, avoids being a complete disaster. Based on “The Knife of Never Letting Go,”
the first book in a trilogy, Walking underwent a decade-long development cycle and multiple production delays that could have easily upended a lesser story. That it somewhat succeeds is thanks in no small part to an intriguing central premise, veteran filmmaker Doug Liman’s (Edge of Tomorrow, The Bourne Identity) economical, efficient storytelling, and engaging performances from Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley (ill-fitting, unnecessary blonde wig aside) as the not-quite-starstruck central duo.
An opening title card conveniently explains the meaning behind “Chaos Walking:” On a far-off, near-future planet called the New World (obvious historical reference alert), something in the lush, verdant Earth-like environment converts men’s thoughts into verbal sounds, images, and projections. Women, however, are excepted and for Todd Hewitt (Holland), a young man who’s never seen one and only remembers his mother from when he was an infant, they’re more myth than reality. Though raised by two loving adopted fathers, Ben (Demián Bichir) and Cillian (Kurt Sutter), Todd’s natural restlessness and difficulty with the settlement’s authority figures, including Aaron (David Oyelowo), the town’s half-mad preacher, and David Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen), the cruel, dictatorial mayor of the self-titled Prentisstown, marks Todd as a borderline outsider and future pariah. Prentiss though sees Todd as a potential soldier in the perpetual war against the Spackle, the planet’s native species (stand-ins for the indigenous, non-Caucasian victims of Western colonization), and other outsiders.
Conveniently for Todd and, of course, the audience, a scout ship from the second wave of settlers crash-lands near his family’s homestead, leaving just one survivor, Viola (Ridley). Todd’s thoughts and his recurring inability to control them in the presence of others, especially Viola, functions to move the story forward at practically every turn—from his excited jaunt through town moments after spotting Viola and the crashed ship to the eventual escape from Prentiss’ clutches to another, possibly mythical settlement within a day or two’s distance. Alone, Todd’s thoughts, up to and including visualizations of Viola as a romantic partner, provide Chaos Walking with much-needed levity in an otherwise grim, downbeat film. Too often—through no fault of its own, just bad timing—it feels like an extended episode of The Walking Dead, with the Spackle (seen once and then never again), swapped out for zombies. Then you’ve got the warring settlements, vying for supremacy over the New World while the displaced, retreating Spackle look on from a distance, their planet wrested from them by alien invaders.
Chaos Walking never quite manages to escape that nagging sense of déjà vu due to its mix-and-match approach to genre tropes and conventions, but at least it wastes little time in establishing characters and their relationships to each other, or in building a recognizable, neo-Western but sci-fi pre-20th- or -21st-century world. For all that, Liman and the credited screenwriting team, Ness and Christopher Ford (no less than Charlie Kaufman worked on an early, apparently discarded draft), keep the film moving at a rapid-fire pace, punctuated periodically with well-choreographed, if generic, action scenes. In fact, deliberately or not, the climactic moments feel lifted right out of the recent Star Wars trilogy.
Thematically, Chaos Walking wants to say something, anything, about colonization, imperialism, genocide, not to mention the self-destructive masculinity Prentiss and Aaron represent, but its singular, myopic focus on Todd, Viola, and their struggle to escape from Prentiss and his army preclude anything except a shallow dive into surface-deep ideas. Granted, those ideas may get more play in the adaptations of the second and third novels in Ness’ literary trilogy, but given that they’re unlikely to be made, Chaos Walking has to be evaluated as a standalone film and at least in that regard, it’s wanting.
Chaos Walking will be released theatrically on March 5th with VOD to follow on a later date.