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SYFY WIRE Chaos Walking

Critics divided on Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley's long-delayed sci-fi film 'Chaos Walking'

By Matthew Jackson
Chaos Walking - Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland

When Chaos Walking was first in production, stars Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley were just coming into their own as global superstars, Holland for his work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Ridley for her time in a galaxy far, far away. After initially shooting in 2017, the film was set for a release in the spring of 2019, but test screenings built up a need for reshoots, and the film was delayed. Now, two years after its initial release date, Chaos Walking is finally here. 

So, was the wait worth it? The film certainly has a lot going for it in many respects, from its talented cast that also includes David Oyelowo, Mads Mikkelsen, Cynthia Erivo and other stars to its direction from Doug Liman, who gave us genre hits like The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow. Plus, it's adapted from an acclaimed series of novels by Patrick Ness, who crafted a wonderfully inventive central premise by designing a world in which men's thoughts are broadcast to everyone around them in the form of "Noise," then exploring what happens when a single young woman (Ridley) enters that rather strange society.

With all that in mind, Chaos Walking certainly had the potential to be something special, but as reviews for the epic sci-fi film come in, it's clear that critics are divided on the final product. For some, the central premise, and even the very presence of "Noise" in the narrative, drowned out any real sense of story or character. 

"The multihued blur of movement created around them by that unfiltered 'Noise' at first had me wondering about a faulty link, or a possible need for picture adjustment on my TV," wrote David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter. "Not that the visual effects aren't slick, like everything else in this dour sci-fi saga. The issue is more that the information overload afflicting the men onscreen also infects the muddy storytelling from the start, failing to hook you into the characters or their plight."

"With all the characters being so poorly fleshed-out and yoked to the grinding gears of the plot, this film wastes a staggering amount of talent," wrote Alonso Duralde of The Wrap. "Besides Holland, Ridley, Mikkelsen, Bechir, and Sutter, the film vastly underutilizes Nick Jonas, Cynthia Erivo, and Ray McKinnon; David Oyelowo, at least, gets to broaden his gallery of characters with the fanatical and misogynist Preacher, who equates womanhood with weakness, and whose Noise is presented as an increasing conflagration of flames floating around his head. It’s all maybe a bit much, but in a film so otherwise unengaging, his scenery-chewing offers a respite."

"In theory, the Noise offers an interesting workaround to one of the key differences between literary fiction and film. The novelist can put the words inside a character’s brain directly on the page, whereas it normally takes narration to share the same on-screen. In practice, however, the Noise just verbalizes what a gifted thespian can convey in silence," Peter Debruge of Variety wrote. "Unless you’re dealing with an inscrutable star, like Ryan Gosling or Alain Delon, great actors invite us into their heads. Here, the execution is further confused by Holland’s animated body language and hyper-expressive face. When a director has that kind of charisma to work with, the Noise is just … well, noise."

"And that’s really just Chaos Walking at large, a series of scenes that sort of work stitched together, but don’t feel natural together at all, scuppering its half-hearted attempts to find another YA dystopia to become a box-office hit," James Whitbrook of io9 wrote. "Chaos definitely walks among its muddled intents, but perhaps not in quite the poetic way Ness’ original work intended it to." 

"As far as pandemic releases from director Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow) go, Chaos Walking definitely has a more interesting premise than Locked Down," Christian Holub of Entertainment Weekly wrote. "But that doesn't mean you should be rushing back to theaters to see it"

But the film was not without its defenders. While many critics took issue with the plot, pacing, and overall design of the central concept, others praised Liman's ability to make something of this film even amid the copious delays and reshoots, and some even lamented the near-certainty that we'll never see a follow-up exploring more of Ness' world. 

"But say this for a movie that technically falls in the tradition of anonymous junk like I Am Number Four and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones: This orphaned YA-fantasy story still has moments that feel like a quintessential Liman project, and not especially because of any obvious thematic preoccupations, or even an inimitable style," Jesse Hassenger of Polygon wrote. "Instead, for much of its running time, Chaos Walking manages to sustain the feeling of anticipating a Doug Liman movie — the unpredictability of whether it will succeed against the odds, or descend into chaotic noise."

"Outside context aside, Chaos Walking is an enjoyable big-scale action fantasy, one that uses its one deviation to its narrative advantage and succeeds thanks to the fundamentals," Scott Mendelson of Forbes wrote. "It may be doomed, but it is a pleasure to be in its brief company."

Chaos Walking is in theaters Friday.