Ambitious adaptations of novels attempting to translate a strange or convoluted concept onto the big screen has become something of a sport that filmmakers partake in. It almost always requires a full restructure of the novel to be constructed into a screenplay, all while maintaining the pieces that keep it what it is. Chaos Walking is one of those novels you really couldn’t imagine working on-screen. The film follows the story of Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland), a young man living on a seemingly desolate alien planet where all men are afflicted by an anomaly called the noise. The noise makes it so all of men’s thoughts are put out on display, anything they think will appear above their head in the form of an almost hallucinogenic haze, audibly announcing what they just thought. Todd encounters a crashed ship, inside it is a young woman named Viola (Daisy Ridley) – together they begin a journey into the unknown with Todd’s thoughts on display and Viola’s not (as women are not affected).
Chaos Walking is a film with a lot of thoughts flying through the air, but with not a lot to say out loud. For a story with such a peculiar and interesting concept on display, there comes a level of expectation one has as it builds toward its conclusion. As we follow these characters through their journey it truly feels like we’re building toward something bigger, perhaps a reason behind the noise, perhaps some answers as to why it only affects men, or perhaps a twist that subverts everything we think we know. Chaos Walking does not answer questions, nor does it pose any – this is in many ways a simple sci-fi action flick, two characters going from point A to point B with a bad man chasing them along the way. Expect anything different and you’ll likely end up disappointed.
This is a film that is using one interesting concept to propel the entire narrative forward and in that sense, I must commend it. Chaos Walking nails its concept, managing to actually translate it on-screen with enough conviction that it remains entertaining for the first 70 minutes in its entire 109 minute runtime. Sure, it doesn’t always stay consistent; often a character won’t be displaying the noise when they should be – oddly, it seems this film is picking and choosing the times it wants to display the noise to us, ultimately leading to a lack of continuity. Once the charm of the noise wears off for the audience, you’re left with an underwhelming narrative containing underwhelming characters.
Sadly, there’s no shortage of that underwhelming feeling, even when it comes to its performances. Now, I want to make it clear that Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley are working with what they have and in terms of character, there’s not a lot – for the most part Ridley appears no different to previous roles she’s performed, as she retains much of the same candor as she had in the Star Wars films. Holland does a little better, perhaps providing a layer more of emotionality to a character that is essentially barren of it. It’s all very average and it really hits home once, as mentioned before, the charm of this film’s gimmick wears off.
Chaos Walking offers an ambitious concept that would create difficulties translating it to a visual medium. One might struggle at the idea on how to visually depict the men having their thoughts on display (known as ‘the noise’) and for the most part, Doug Liman and his technical team pull it off. This may have been one of the very few ways to depict such a thing – yet, it still came across as jarring and hardly digestible at first. Having ‘the noise’ be a varicoloured blur injects a bit of well-needed colour in this dark and murky film. The visual effects that depict the noise is quite good and often presents different ways to portray the noise in various ways that reflect the character’s thought process.
While I appreciate the way the visual effects depict the interesting concept of the world, there is no other interesting element inside this film. The journey itself mostly takes place inside a jungle that has no resonating qualities that provide distinction from our own world, there are moments that provide doses of curiosity but it doesn’t follow through. Despite real locations being used in Iceland and Scotland, the terrain remains the same through so no real sense of progression is felt in this adventure story. The action set-pieces aren’t at all engrossing due to the dim lighting, fast camera-movement and a spate of cuts where it is difficult to comprehend what is happening on-screen.
While Chaos Walking doesn’t have a notable score to make the movie impactful, the one thing it gets right is its sound design and editing. The primary creative weapon this film utilizes resides in how it captures the thoughts of its characters and outputs that as sound. Whether it’s a passing thought or an impulsive one, they often manifest in different ways from one another. For example, impulsive thoughts are loud and dominant, appearing above the characters head for all to see; whereas faint passing thoughts tend to reside at the back of the head in whisps, almost inaudible to the ear and visually faint. One of the more clever utilizations of sound I’ve seen on-screen in recent years.
Chaos Walking feels like a film that placed all of its efforts into ensuring the concept could work on-screen, leaving almost nothing else for character and the overall narrative. While it struggles to truly even meet the expectations higher-browed movie-goers would come to expect, it stays intrinsically entertaining enough to justify its existence.