Chaos Walking has been a long time coming. Bolstered by beloved source material and the promise of inspired direction by Edge of Tomorrow director Doug Liman, the film seemed to have everything it needed to be a worthwhile adaptation. Unfortunately, it’s almost everything but.
Chaos Walking is stodgy, self-important, and sporadically Biblical, toothless YA adaptation that mindlessly chews at ideas it doesn’t develop. It’s a frustrating reinforcement of its genre’s worst habits, with little redeeming it beyond brief glimpses of inspired storytelling. Based on Patrick Ness’s 2008 book The Knife of Never Letting Go, Liman’s insipid translation lacks the narrative boldness and broader appeal of its source material.
The plot takes place on a planet called New World and revolves around the young Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland) as he discovers that much of his existence has been a bold-faced lie, and that the people he looks to for guidance are the people of whom he should be most afraid. Meanwhile, the cruel Mayor of Prentisstown (a mesmerizing Mads Mikkelsen) seeks Viola (Daisy Ridley), a young woman who crash lands on New World and finds herself in very immediate danger.
On paper, the idea works. The success of The Knife of Never Letting Go proves that. Adapted for the screen though, it treads on fertile thematic ground but does little to nurture its ideas. Every time Liman approaches substance, he adjusts his focus and loses his narrative traction. The result is a story without any kind of plot propulsion and a world that feels developed but not realized.
Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley have natural chemistry, and while their magnetism could have been stronger with a better script, there’s an innocence to them that’s refreshing and almost endearing. But Ridley fits too snugly into the “strong, silent heroine” archetype, with little challenging the notion that she’s painfully generic. Contrastingly, Holland’s plucky Todd Hewitt is every bit the callow hero of dystopias past, but with a likably timid twist. Together, the two are infinitely more interesting and emotive than they are apart. The small smiles they share, the furtive glances they steal, the quiet compromises they reach together…it’s all so subtle and sweet, and it hints at a spark that the film never quite coaxes into a flame. Chaos Walking tears us away from Holland and Ridley too frequently for anything to develop organically, all in the interest of expanding our understanding of New World.
Aside from some compelling table-setting and a handful of fun performances, Chaos Walking is tedious at best and forgettable at worst. Thankfully, the story staggers its exposition in a way that feels more natural than an information dump of an opening scene would have.
The film’s high-concept premise requires the kind of bandwagoning that benefitted the Harry Potter and Hunger Games franchises, but Liman doesn’t have a firm enough grasp on the source material to make it accessible or enjoyable. Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go demonstrated an ability to hook you as it built its world, but its adaptation proves far too invested in fleshing out its story without populating it with actual characters. It wants you to know the reason there are no women in Prentisstown more than it cares about connecting you with the people in it. There are glimpses of a better movie here, but they’re quickly obscured by that compulsion to sell us on an idea before it sells us on its characters.
And that is understandable, to a certain degree. Chaos Walking had a lot to prove, and while it doesn’t prove itself as anything more than a misfire, it’s important to remember how steep of an uphill climb it had from the get-go. There’s almost a stigma leveled against young adult adaptations, one that often leads to their dismissal as lower art forms and dissuades many moviegoers from watching them. Liman took a shot at that stigma and missed, which is disappointing considering how much went into making this movie happen.
Chaos Walking is intended to be the first installment in a trilogy, a fact reflected by its jarringly sudden ending. Perhaps its greatest accomplishment is that it sets up an opportunity for its sequels to bring some power and punch to this rocky franchise.
Hopefully, a sequel gets the green light, because there is a ton of potential that Chaos Walking just doesn’t use.