CHAOS WALKING is a dystopian science fiction film set on another planet with YA style heroes directed by Doug Liman. Is it terrible? No, it’s competently made, as Liman is a good director and a capable director of young actors – see his 1999 film Go for proof, and he’s made a number of entertaining action films like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Bourne Identity, and Edge of Tomorrow. He’s got an eye for talent as his films have featured early appearances or breakout roles from Sarah Polley, Vince Vaughn, Melissa McCarthy, and Emily Blunt.
However, there’s only so much that one can do with turgid and cliched subject matter that’s derivative of other franchises in the YA subgenre. Additionally, the script only lightly touches on the cultish aspects of the Mayor and the religious basis of this cult of personality. I get it, but it might not be that clear to everyone. The basis for the books and the film is interesting, the idea that men as violent and chaotic and have no problem with violence as a mirror to our own world, but it suffers from a script with unclear motivations and two uninspiring lead performances. Daisy Ridley seems to have two expressions, a pop eyed look of shock and horror, and neutral gear. Tom Holland just seems confused and grumpy. Nick Jonas fades into the background.
Cynthia Erivo (Hildy), Demián Bichir (Ben), Bethany Anne Lind (Karyssa Hewitt) and Mads Mikkelsen (Mayor David Prentiss) give much more nuanced performances than the leads which kind of makes you wish they had been the center of the film. David Oyelowo goes big with a performance as an angry preacher and that’s good too. Even the dog who plays Menchee is more memorable. You have to have characters portrayed by strong lead actors who give the audience something to latch onto for this kind of hero story to really work. Towards the end, I gained a bit more sympathy for the characters, but it was a bit late in the game to make me like the movie more. Think back to the prototype for this kind of film series, The Hunger Games, and while the male-co leads are bland, Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen is compelling and more complex than the characters in the film. As it happens, the mold was set with her somewhat stone faced Everdeen and it was really the surrounding character work by many other solid actors that made her performance look better. In this film, there’s not enough time for the character actors to save it.
Once again, there are some good and intriguing ideas in the film from the book series, but the script has apparently been rewritten more than once since Charlie Kaufman wrote the original version. The author of the book series, Patrick Ness, is given credit for the final script along with Christopher Ford, who wrote Spiderman: Homecoming and Robot and Frank. I think a lot of the responsibility for the ultimate failure of the film has to lie with the script and the lead performances. Liman does manage to create some excitement as the film runs along and I really don’t mind the special effect that is meant to show men’s thoughts or The Noise, but I can see how it might be weird for most people. There’s a really cool moment late in the proceedings that does show how men are frequently exasperating without knowing it and how women silently put up with it and change their lives to deal with it. That was something that was a moment of perfect symbolism among a bunch of running and jumping that said more than large chunks of the film.
CHAOS WALKING is CHAOS AS FILMMAKING. It had potential as a YA franchise entry but with bland lead actors/characters and a script that doesn’t fully commit to its premise, it’s hard to be inspired by its ideas. In the books the dog talks and when I found that out, I was really disappointed that they didn’t just go for it. In the end, that’s the problem. With the exception of the mad preacher, this movie doesn’t really take the risk necessary for it to be great and is left with the consolation prize of mediocrity. I would really like to see the movie that this could have been. As with the title itself, it settles for something that looks cool, but doesn’t mean as much as it thinks it does.
CHAOS WALKING is now in theaters and IMAX. Disclaimer/Editor’s Note: Nightmarish Conjurings doesn’t endorse seeing movies in theaters at this time due to the pandemic. Please consider VOD and/or Drive-In options and, if you go to the theater, please be safe.