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By Christian Holub
March 03, 2021 at 12:00 PM EST
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Chaos Walking presents the same obvious question to all viewers going in, regardless of one's familiarity with the YA source material: How do Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley fare outside of the Disney blockbuster franchises that introduced them to a global audience? Holland is certainly trying very hard lately to break out of his Spider-Man image, but unlike Cherry — which casts him as a traumatized soldier-turned-addict — Chaos Walking is still firmly planted in the faraway worlds of science-fiction and YA adventure. Perhaps relatedly, this latest role — as an inexperienced young man who can't control his pubescent thoughts and desires — makes good use of Holland's skills and persona.

Ridley and Holland play two sides of a primal sci-fi gender divide: His Todd has grown up on a planet without any women, while her Viola is a new arrival from a crashed spaceship that was meant to reinforce this outer-space colony. She is the first woman Todd has seen since he was a young boy; we're told that all the women in the colony, including his mother, were wiped out years ago in a genocidal attack by the planet's native "Spackle" species. The planet they're on, which is only ever referred to as "New World" to draw a connection between outer-space colonization and the historical Christopher Columbus variety, makes the thoughts of men visible as a swirling energy called Noise. 

Chaos Walking
Credit: Murray Close/Lionsgate

Noise is the central conceit of the Chaos Walking world (the film is based on a trilogy of books by author Patrick Ness, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Christopher Ford), and the special effects team deserves credit for making the phenomenon come across pretty well on screen. It's certainly one of the most dynamic interpretations of telepathy, a sci-fi power that is notoriously hard to make visually interesting. Where Scanners once used seizures and exploding heads, Chaos Walking's Noise combines flowing ethereal colors with disjointed voiceover from each actor, creating an unsettling effect — especially since each male character's Noise is different. David Oyelowo (Selma) plays the town's troubled preacher Aaron, whose Noise is all fire and brimstone, full of paranoid rants. Mayor David Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen) has an expert control over his Noise that mirrors his control over the men in his town. He often repeats a little mantra to himself, "I am the circle and the circle is me," that helps him keep his innermost thoughts occluded; other men can't help but pick up the chant, cult-style. None of them have Prentiss' skill, though; he can form his Noise into energy constructs like a ring of fences to encircle a foe, or a shadow clone duplicate to deceive attackers. 

Mikkelsen has played iconic villains before, and while Prentiss isn't nearly as memorable as Hannibal Lecter or Le Chiffre, he still manages to imbue Chaos Walking with a sense of danger. The big red coat he wears, reminiscent of Warren Beatty's in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, is Chaos Walking's best touch of "space Western" flair, though the film's mostly-gray palette can't compare to the lush colors of '70s frontier flicks. Oyelowo also brings some unhinged menace to the proceedings. At one point, Aaron performs one of the cruelest acts this reviewer can remember seeing in a PG-13 movie. Not long after, another of the most horrifying things in the film is done to him by someone else. 

There's a paradox at the center of Chaos Walking. Though the film is making some points about sexist inequality and patriarchal oppression, it does so in a way that mostly deprives the story of female characters and underserves the ones that do appear. Noise has no effect on women, which makes the men of New World unsettled by Viola's arrival. As one character says, "the men can't stand women knowing everything about them" without a corresponding vice versa. But without access to the film's primary storytelling innovation, Ridley's performance is inherently less interesting than her male costars. Aside from the blonde hair and orange overalls, Viola also comes across very similar to Rey: A strong, independent young woman who doesn't need men to save her, but whose worldview is entirely oriented around long-dead parents she barely knew. She has the same accent too; if Ridley doesn't want to find a new one, she should definitely keep playing space characters of vague backgrounds. Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) shows up as one of Chaos Walking's few other female characters, but only gets a handful of lines. Is this feminist storytelling? 

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

(Chaos Walking is in select theaters and IMAX this Friday.)

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