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‘Chaos Walking’ Review: A welcome YA sci-fi surprise

‘Chaos Walking’ is not nearly the trainwreck we’ve all come to expect.

Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland in 'Chaos Walking'.
(Image: © Lionsgate)

Our Verdict

'Chaos Walking' makes for a pleasant surprise in the wake of years of cynicism about its chances of success.

For

  • 🌿Engaging and original sci-fi hook.
  • 🌿Mads Mikkelsen and David Oyelowo are compelling villains.
  • 🌿Tom Holland sells the journey of a young man confronting the toxicity of his masculine culture.

Against

  • 🌿Technical hiccups in the editing.
  • 🌿Some of the plot is fairly predictable.

Chaos Walking is currently only available to watch in theaters (as of February 12, 2021). Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we recommend checking it out at your local drive-in. If one isn’t available, please be sure to check out state and CDC guidelines before watching in an enclosed space.

Chaos Walking has something of a reputation among film pundits as one of the most troubled productions of recent history. With a screenplay written and rewritten many times over a period of more than five years, original filming having taken place back in 2017, and test screenings received so poorly as to necessitate reshoots and further production delays, this was the film that many of us collectively decided was a doomed and lost cause, the result of so many chaotic issues that Lionsgate had no choice but to dump this $100 million project into theaters during a global pandemic. But if anything, Chaos Walking is a testament to how we shouldn’t prejudge films before we see them, no matter how unlikely of a success they may seem.

About 250 years in the future, humanity has colonized a distant planet dubbed New World, but Todd (Tom Holland) has only ever known his technologically primitive homestead on New World, populated solely by men and governed by the mayor David Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen). The strange quirk of New World is that all men broadcast their thoughts, with varying levels of control, as voices and images, making deception difficult for those with less ability to hide their feelings; women, while they were still alive, had apparently been immune to the planet’s changes. Todd in particular has trouble keeping his thoughts to himself, which only becomes more complicated when he discovers a crashed spaceship and the first woman he’s ever met in his life, Viola (Daisy Ridley). Because Prentiss fears that a second wave of colonists will arrive and wrest the control he has over his town, he seeks to hunt and kill Viola, forcing Todd to take her running to another settlement elsewhere on the planet.

In terms of being a young adult science fiction story, Chaos Walking certainly falls into some conventional genre trappings that some might find irksome, especially since the other books in its trilogy are unlikely to be adapted to film any time soon. Some characters, like Nick Jonas as Prentiss’s son Davy and the rival alien race known as The Spackle, are underdeveloped and seem to be introduced only as teases for future plotlines. Todd and Viola necessarily form a teasing pseudo-romantic bond where one isn’t necessary or even particularly likely, considering how Todd’s intrusively lustful thoughts are a constant barrage against an appropriately weirded-out Viola. And yes, there are some jarring edits and obvious lines of dialogue dubbed in after the fact to hide some of the more egregious instances where there wasn’t enough footage to cobble together the scene.

However, the biggest saving grace of Chaos Walking is the strength of the underlying narrative, which uses the introduction of femininity into Todd’s life as a lens through which he is able to grow beyond the toxic masculinity of his culture. Setting aside the obvious gender essentialism of the premise, the story is ultimately about the fear men have in showing their true feelings, hiding their supposed weakness behind bravo and aggression to the point where they are willing to potentially destroy their own chance at a future for the opportunity to retain some measure of control in the present. Though Todd is a product of that culture, his exposure to a woman, who is capable of concealing her intentions but eventually opts for trust and cooperation, allows him to grow and reconcile his culture’s failings with the potential for a future where fear doesn’t motivate self-destruction.

It certainly helps that Chaos Walking moves at a fairly brisk pace, providing a steady flow of narrative revelations and action beats to keep the tension up. Sometimes these action scenes are unnecessarily muddied – again, the editing is sometimes an issue – but they’re motivated by a hell of an underboss in the form of David Oyelowo as the religious zealot Aaron, who interprets the feminine ability to hide one’s thoughts as evidence of sin and proudly blasts his rambling sermons while cloaking himself in illusory fire. A character like that makes some of the more predictable turns of the plot more bearable, since the sheer raw force of the portrayal is so engaging in the moment that it’s easy to forget the template the film adheres to.

Chaos Walking makes for a pleasant surprise in the wake of years of cynicism about its chances of success. It’s not exactly a mind-blowing entry in the dystopian fiction genre, but it’s underpinned by strong enough conceits that its technical hiccups feel less detrimental than they probably should. The real tragedy here is that we’re very unlikely to see this trilogy play out as originally intended, because this world is brimming with potential for more social commentary and exploration of Todd’s and Viola’s growing worldviews. If this is all we’re getting, I’m glad it beat the odds and turned out to be a solid bit of entertainment.

Chaos Walking opens in theaters on March 5, 2021.