Chaos Walking (3 stars)

Chaos Walking

Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley head up a fine cast in this YA sci-fi adventure

Patrick Ness's acclaimed YA novel becomes a less accomplished film that nevertheless boasts a high calibre ensemble and some fascinating ideas. Two of the biggest young names in sci-fi cinema, Spider-Man's Tom Holland and Star Wars's Daisy Ridley, come together at the fore, with David Oyelowo, Demián Bichir, Cynthia Erivo and Mads Mikkelsen flanking them.

Directed by Edge of Tomorrow's Doug Liman, working from a screenplay by Ness and Christopher Ford (Spider-Man: Homecoming, Robot & Frank), it's based on The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first in the Chaos Walking trilogy – which are winners of numerous children's fiction awards. Holland plays Todd Hewitt, a young man who is part of the first wave of human settlers on a planet known simply as New World. When they arrived, the men alone were affected by a phenomenon known as the Noise, allowing their thoughts to be heard by others, and depicted here as smoke-like light and imagery encircling their heads. During a war with a native species, all of the women were killed.

The year is 2257AD but the tribe's sophisticated technology has been largely abandoned for a grubbier, more lawless way of living, akin to the Wild West. This particular settlement has been dubbed Prentisstown, after its mayor David Prentiss (Mikkelsen, rocking a fur coat and cowboy hat), a leader who is no doubt formidable but keeps his cards close to his chest, due to his ability to control his 'Noise' like no other. The jittery, self-flagellating thoughts of Todd, on the other hand, can be heard loud and clear; when a young woman crash-lands on the planet (Ridley's Viola), this becomes pretty embarrassing.

The Noise itself takes some getting used to, creating a hectic soundscape that makes the film a challenge to engage with at first. It's an idea that's clearly easier to pull off on paper, however ingenious some of the effects are here. Yet the concept does take us into some interesting territory relating to misogyny, material that might have been more impactfully explored in something less family friendly; both Mikkelsen's character and Oyelowo's demented preacher feel like they've had their claws clipped, while aging the central characters up from the novel's 12/13-year-olds should have given the green light to be a bit bolder.

Some of the exposition is rushed (a diary entry filling in the blanks is especially crudely done) and Chaos Walking lacks the richness and overarching tension of something like The Hunger Games, which it superficially resembles. However, the combination of western and sci-fi influences results in some decent costume and production design, and there are a number of exciting sequences. If Ridley's Viola doesn't have much of a personal journey, then Holland gets to convincingly reel from a few revelations as Todd and, as underused as some of these great actors are (Erivo and Oyelowo in particular), spending time in the company of such a fine cast is enough of a pleasure.

Available to watch on premium video on demand from Fri 2 Apr.

Chaos Walking

  • 3 stars
  • 2019
  • US
  • 1h 49min
  • Directed by: Doug Liman
  • Written by: Patrick Ness, Christopher Ford
  • Cast: Tom Holland, Daisy Ridley
  • UK release: 2 April 2021

Young adult sci-fi set in a dystopian world where all living creatures can hear each others' thoughts.