Based on the first in a trilogy of young adult novels by Patrick Ness, “Chaos Walking” is a science fiction western set on a colonized planet where men’s thoughts can be heard by others. That’s a fertile starting place for a genre film, and the premise is intriguingly visualized here by Ness, coscreenwriter Christopher Ford, and director Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity,” “Go”), with characters’ thoughts and feelings swirling about their heads in a purplish-blue wreath-like haze that suggests those scientist’s models of how airborne infections are spread. Every human character in “Chaos Walking” rather suggests a walking mood ring when seen from a distance—there are some chilling shots of angry mobs coming over ridges and horizons where you can see their bad thoughts pulsating. We hear individual, unspoken thoughts in snippets of freewheeling voice-over narration, popping in and out of conversations in the manner of thought balloons in a comic book (“Don’t let them know she’s in the barn!”). This is all referred to as “Noise.”
We’re getting ahead of ourselves—this review hasn’t even described what the movie is about yet!—but it’s easy to do because “Chaos Walking” is so more interesting to think about, particularly after the fact, than it is to watch. A powerhouse team-up of two Disney franchise stars, Tom Holland (aka the MCU Spider-Man) and Daisy Ridley (Rey from the “Star Wars” sequels), “Chaos Walking” takes place some time into the future. Earthlings have left their seemingly degraded homeworld to seed new systems. Holland’s character, Todd Hewitt, is the naive teenage son of a farmer (Damian Bechir) in a small village, Prentisstown, on a rural backwater planet.
There are no women in sight. We’re told that the indigenous population killed all the women (including Todd’s mother) during a war between themselves and the colonizers. The mayor of the village, Mads Mikkelsen’s David Prentiss, has built a religion around this harsh reality, one that appears to take the form of enforced, ritualized hyper-masculinity, with men affirming that they derive strength from The Noise around their heads, chastising themselves and each other for showing weakness and expressing emotion, and attacking any man who does on grounds that he’s “acting like a woman.”
Ridley’s character, Viola Eade, falls into this macho cesspool when the spacecraft bearing her toward the planet malfunctions, depositing her in the woods outside town, the sole survivor of a brutal crash. Of course Todd finds her and instantly develops a crush on her, and it’s only a matter of time before he has to protect her against an all-male mob, most of which has never seen a woman before. Viola doesn’t need protection, really; she’s mechanically capable, and can fight. But she does need a guide through the wilderness to take her to find a transmitter left over from a previous mission, which will enable her to call for help.
Pretty soon we’re in the territory of an essentially benevolent science-fiction drama like “E.T.” or “Starman” revolving around a duo, one of which is more highly evolved than the other. (Of course it’s debatable which of these two is better equipped for survival; Todd is a far more proficient fighter and killer, but The Noise in his head keeps giving away his position as well as the thoughts he wants to keep hidden.) The science-fiction aspects coexist with a sort of modified wilderness survival picture aspect, as well an old-fashioned Western about the politics of civilization in a “frontier” that’s been built upon colonized land.
It’s frustrating that “Chaos Walking” barely delves into the backstory of the indigenous race of humanoids that were beaten into submission by the humans, and that supposedly burdened the surviving humans with audible/visible thoughts, as if cursing them for the sins they committed. (We meet one of the natives in a brief, violent action scene; he (it?) is missing an arm from the elbow down.) But then, there’s a lot of detail that gets skimmed over in the urgent push to get Viola and Todd to the transmitter. Liman’s deftness at staging large-scale yet intimate action scenes often occupies spaces in the running time that might’ve been better served with more world-building and philosophical debates, as well as more insight into the history of this colonized world, which resonates with stories of genocide against indigenous people inside the United States and in countries overseas. (Australia and Japan make great “Westerns,” too.)
To be fair, the film occupies a tricky marketplace position and appears to have practiced a bit of creative self-censorship. It’s a $100 million-budgeted sci-fi picture: not small, by any means, but also not big by the standards of Star Wars or Marvel, which routinely drops anywhere from $250 to $400 million on a single project. Maybe the mandate was to lure new audiences with action and potential romance and the (relative) star power of Ridley and Holland, then go deeper into the weeds in future installments. But what ended up onscreen feels not-quite-there a lot of the time, which seems to make another installment less likely, so what was the point of playing it safe?
This is particularly frustrating when Ridley and Holland are delivering superb, unaffected performances as characters that we genuinely do care about, in an environment that’s been built out just enough to make you fixate on all of the tantalizing unanswered questions that the film is never going to do more than glance at. The many undernourished aspects include the toxic masculinity cult that Prentiss has built up encouraged; his chief acolyte, played by David Oyelowo, is a firebrand who has internalized everything the high priest taught him, becoming a radical revolutionary who already thinks he’d make a better leader of men.
Mikkselsen’s approach to his underwritten character is fascinating, as is so often the case with this actor. Spending most of the film’s running time on horseback, wearing a lush, long fur coat and floppy-brimmed hat that suggests the sort of decadent fop that Marlon Brando might’ve played after middle age, and delivering his lines in a combination purring Euro-cadence and down-home frontier drawl, he’s always perched right on the knife’s-edge of hamminess. But it’s impossible to deny that somehow, mysteriously, like Lebowski’s rug, he ties the whole thing together.
Kudos to Liman and his collaborators (including a sound team consisting of more than three dozen people) for showing us something we haven’t exactly seen before, outside of a few stray scenes or sequences in telepathic horror or superhero pictures where the main characters have to learn how to selectively screen out the data that their highly advanced senses/brains are vacuuming up. “Chaos Walking” immerses the viewer in a different kind of cinematic headspace, creating a film that gradually teaches the viewer how to watch it. It takes a while to get used to the way these characters interact—particularly the way they shield their thoughts from others by repeating certain neutral words and phrases like mantras—and how their hidden or revealed thoughts are visualized in the swirling animated masses that surround their heads. But once you’re immersed, it’s a powerful experience that lingers in the mind long after the film’s many disappointments have started to fade. How can a person last even an hour in a world like this one without going mad, or making another person want to kill them? To quote Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “…If my thought-dreams could be seen/You’d put my head in a guillotine.”