Doug Liman has handled high-concept sci-fi with great success before. Edge of Tomorrow remains one of the most unusual and thrilling sci-fi films in the last 10 years. Watching Chaos Walking, you would almost forget how deftly that film was made.
Chaos Walking is chock full of imaginative ideas. However, the basic structure of the film is a routine chase film with characters we barely get to know. The film is adapted from Patrick Ness' novel "The Knife of Never Letting Go." No doubt the novel is able to expand on the creative concept presented here.
The plot is about a future where human colonists are living on a foreign planet. Men's thoughts can be seen and heard by others. This is called "Noise." Women have been killed off by an alien species. Todd (Tom Holland) lives in a community of men with his father Ben (Demián Bichir) and Cillian (Kurt Sutter). It is unclear, like so much of the characters in the film, as to the nature of Ben and Cillian's relationship. They share a bed but the film leaves it at that. The community is run by the Mayor (Mads Mikkelsen) who has the ability to control his Noise. One day a pod crashes and the only survivor is Viola (Daisy Ridley). She is the first woman that Todd has been around. Women don't have Noise. Immediately she is targeted by The Mayor. Her goal is to make contact with her ship so she isn't left behind. This seems to threaten The Mayor's control. Todd, being a good guy because he is the lead character, helps Viola.
The visualization of the Noise comes off a bit like odor lines from a cartoon. It is not a bad visualization of the concept but does often clutter the screen with cloud-like auras around men's heads. The script keeps changing how certain characters can manipulate their Noise into illusions but the how is never explained. By the climax of the film, the characters use this as a super-power. The concept is full of potential but the script reduces it to a series of chases. There is a unique sci-fi Western here that could have used to lean into the weirdness of its premise. So little is explained, however. The character never fleshes out to be more than archetypes.
The cast is stacked with some major talent. Holland and Ridley have a few cute exchanges but nothing is revealed about who they are so we end up caring very little for them. Nick Jonas, David Oyelowo, and especially Cynthia Erivo are underutilized in supporting roles. One can't help but to wish for more of Oyelowo's Preacher character who has fascinating qualities but whose trajectory changes so suddenly and without explanation that the character dissipates away like the vapors of Noise.
With so much potential, Chaos Walking should have been a wild sci-fi ride. It isn't but also can't be written off as a total failure. There are moments that work very well and the details of the story being told are genuinely interesting. The grim tone and shocking violence to animals don't help it though. The execution sadly is not good and it becomes clear as the credits role why this film was shelved for a couple of years.