CHAOS WALKING Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony’s walking. Chaos follows.
There’s a phrase in baking.


It means that when you’ve handled a lump of dough too much or too long, what you end up with a loaf of bread that’s too brittle, with no stretch or give. It just snaps or shatters when you try to make it stretch into an hour and a half of sci-fi dystopia.

No, wait, it’s possible we had a metaphor collision there, but the point, such as it was, is one that stands when talking about Chaos Walking, the new movie based on The Knife Of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness.

The book came out in 2008, and had an interesting central premise – in the 23rd century, Earth colonists have landed on a world where all living creatures hear each other’s thoughts, whether as voices or a cloud of images around them.

Except there are no women.

That strand of the premise is an over-stretch to begin with. When you’re introduced to our hero, a young man named Todd Hewitt (played a little distractingly in the movie by Tom ‘Spider Man’ Holland), and realise he believes the mythology of his town, that all the women were slaughtered by an indigenous species who miraculously left the men unscathed, it puts a heck of a strain on your credulity, which can only be held in place if the answer is enormous chicanery by the local embodiment of state power.

That embodiment of state power? Mads Mikkelsen as David Prentiss, Mayor of the modestly named Prentisstown.

Prentiss and Co have established an olde-worlde wild west agrarian version of a frontier colony, apparently in the absence of women, and that sets you thinking immediately about where they get new people from, and how recent this slaughter of the women must have been. Most of the men in the place must know or have memories of that time, that event. But not Todd Hewitt, who was a baby at the time (and as such can act as an innocent avatar for the viewer’s hopes).

Then a scout ship crashes in their less-than-idyllic world, and conveniently enough, all its crew die, save one – a girl named Viola (played equally distractingly by Daisy ‘Rey Palpatine’ Ridley). When Todd discovers her, the pair begin a race against the inevitable consequences of the state finding Viola, whose people are following in a main ship. She has to find a way to signal that ship or be stranded on the colony world for the rest of her life. Think ET phone home, if Elliott had never seen a girl before, and ET was one.

We won’t spoiler the Big Reveal for you, because it’s so screamingly obvious that anyone aged, say, 10 or more will immediately have worked it out. And that’s really the problem we mentioned coming in.

2008 feels a lifetime away in terms of the revealed misogyny of the western patriarchies, so of course a science-fiction world in which the thoughts of the sexes towards each other were visible would be a nightmare dystopia.

If you’re a woman on the internet in 2021, the world of Chaos Walking probably feels far too close to home. It may have felt that way in 2008 too, but after four years where misogyny and fragile fear of ‘the other’ has unapologetically and nakedly ruled the world, having those qualities personified in Prentiss is if anything too subtle and too obvious.

Again, it wasn’t too subtle or too obvious in 2008, but from our vantage point in 2021, the warning as which it started out feels like a re-run even when we start the movie.

Hewitt’s combination of white knight syndrome and obvious attraction to Viola – which makes itself known in a cringey but at least non-violent scene where he imagines his help leading to kisses – feels like the product of a more innocent, not to say a more clueless age.

And the trope of fairy stories, that men acting to help women in danger must be ultimately rewarded with romantic (which, underneath all the euphemism, is to say sexual) interest is not avoided here. Again, you can see where the thought process comes from, but in 2021, it feels off-kilter and off-key.

So…is there anything good to say about Chaos Walking?

Sure. The premise is visually very well delivered, the effects of the ‘Noise’ – the ungoverned or poorly-governed thoughts of men – having benefited from the decade and change of time and effects between the book’s release and the movie’s.

It’s also by no means the fault of the lead actors that they distract rather than drawing us into the world of the story. They act well in these roles, for all there’s little underlying development of their characters bar a formulaic ‘boy meets girl, helps her through adversity, wonders if she’ll feel obliged to sleep with him in gratitude’ arc.

The distraction is merely a product of the actors being famous from (among much else) strongly geek-centric properties, so they lose the anonymity within a geeky setting that should sell them to us as these characters. It’s like discovering John Wayne acting in a western – it becomes a John Wayne movie, and the actual character he plays becomes relatively irrelevant. So here with Holland and Ridley, there’s a sense of “geek-actors play sci-fi.” That shouldn’t be distracting, but ultimately is.

Really though, however well delivered the effects, the movie can’t escape the overworking of its premise. The script had several rounds of re-writes in the intervening decade, and it feels like it shows.

Yes, it’s in the great tradition of space opera as fairy tales with ray guns. Yes, it carries with it all the by-now tedious tropes of princess-rescue, untrustworthy state power, man on a quest for self-knowledge and ideally a happily ever after with the female lead. It’s just that all the potential fun of that, all the spontaneity and wit, and even most of the real dramatic tension of it, feels like its been worked out of it along the way, and is directed by Doug Liman with an earnestness that just underlines the obvious reality behind Todd Hewitt’s naivety. Any surprise that made it through the long development process is therefore directed right out the door, leaving a movie that feels leaden, rather than at any point surprising.

And, given everything the audience has been through in the last half-decade, it also feels like what started out as a warning against misogyny has arrived with too little verve, and a little too late. The real world has already given us this warning and this wake-up call. Seeing it replayed in the setting of a sci-fi dystopia barely registers now on our outrage-meter, because the world has already seen it all.

It’s almost heartbreaking, probably, for writers and filmmakers and actors to work this hard and this long to get a project from the page to the screen, only to end up with an overworked movie that arrives too late to be engaging.

Sadly, that seems to be what’s happened with Chaos Walking. It’s evolved from a well-meaning attempt to draw attention to the insularity and potentially toxic misogyny of macho culture into a western-themed space fairy tale of “We know already.”

It’s a little too obvious, and a little too late. From a creative standpoint, as we say, that’s probably heartbreaking. From an audience standpoint, we’d love to find the arc of Chaos Walking a surprise, but it never has enough stretch in it to hook or even really to entertain us in 2021.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

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