A Character-Driven Mystery
by Breanna Beers
I really wanted to like this movie, but I wasn’t actually expecting to.
“Chaos Walking” is based on a trilogy by Patrick Ness, whose novels are both potent and poignant. It stars the undeniably talented Daisy Ridley and impossibly likable Tom Holland, both of whom I unequivocally adore. Throw in some Nick Jonas for whimsy and a setting that’s equal parts supernatural, outer space and Frontierland, and you get a specific variety of weird that is my jam, jelly, peanut butter, and bread.
Yet I had my doubts. While giving glimpses of the unusual setting and showing off its star-studded cast, the trailer didn’t tip its hand on what the movie was actually about. The quick cuts, eerie music, and dramatic voiceover read to me as either a five-years-too-late post-apocalyptic-bandwagon blockbuster-wanna-be or an indie art project with more style than substance.
Sure enough, the movie was a financial flop and a critical failure. In fact, my plans to see it opening weekend were cancelled after my friends found out about its scathing 20% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Fortunately, I have a job that lets me enjoy reviewing even bad movies. So, a week later, I made my way to a near-empty theater to perform an autopsy of what went wrong. I was ready to dissect its flaws and mine whatever tiny gems were hiding amid the rough.
What I found was a treasure trove. I loved this movie, both emotionally and intellectually. It made me feel things while I was there and think about things after I left—things I’m still thinking about a week later, even outside the context of this review. It’s probably my favorite movie I’ve seen in the last year, and this was the year I watched “The Matrix,” “Back to the Future,” and “X-Men” all for the first time.
If you’re interested in a compelling, character-driven, running-through-the-woods adventure-mystery packed with rich themes in a filled-out world, stop reading now. So much of the joy I got out of this film came from growing with the characters as they learned more about each other and the world around them, and I don’t want to rob you of that experience.
On the surface, “Chaos Walking” is a movie where two characters wander through the woods toward a nebulous destination pursued by bad guys. It’s a commonly used formula that has led to countless movies consisting of pointless action sequences interspersed with dull exposition, a programmed lull amid all the “exciting stuff.”
“Chaos Walking,” by contrast, is character-driven, well-paced, and earnest. It’s much more a mystery than it is an action movie. What kept me engaged throughout was the gradual uncovering of more and more pieces of the puzzle that is this world. The time spent walking through the woods isn’t filler; rather, it gives our characters a context in which to interact with each other and explore the world around them.
Meanwhile, the action scenes that do exist are relatively brief in a way that makes them feel more authentic. They serve to develop the characters and drive the story rather than merely inject excitement. In particular, the final fight is shockingly brief for a climax yet achieves all the emotional resonance it needs to—because it’s driven by the characters’ motivations and limited by their actual abilities.
The mystery is executed through a mix of showing and telling, set up by the film’s unique premise: that the thoughts of men—but not women—are made visible and audible as “noise” in the atmosphere of this colonized planet. This concept puts an added twist on the questions about social order and humanity that planet colonization stories always raise, but “Chaos Walking” doles out information gradually rather than front-loading. The movie expertly navigates the fine line between keeping viewers eager for more and leaving them frustrated. I kept coming up with new questions as the film went on, but they were prompted by engagement and curiosity, not confusion.
The dialogue is only expositional when it has to be for the sake of the characters, not for the sake of the audience. Past the first few minutes, I rarely felt like I knew less than they did, and was never confused; instead, I was allowed to learn alongside them and so experience all the emotional weight of their reactions. That’s one of the best things about this movie: it doesn’t over-explain, because every step of the way, “Chaos Walking” is driven by its characters.
Todd Hewett (Tom Holland) is the youngest person in his all-male town, the last of a dying generation, and he hates his life. He’s insecure, resentful, and purposeless. His misery matches the bleak landscape around him. At first, this grim role seemed like an incongruous choice for Holland, who I’m used to seeing as bright, earnest, and awkwardly lovable. Yet his performance highlights Todd’s vulnerabilities in a way that is both compelling as a character and significant for the story, setting up the themes of shame, approval, and power that run through the movie.
When Viola arrives from Earth, Todd chooses to help her because he sees her as hope for the town. It’s a rude awakening when he realizes the other men see her as a threat instead. He’s confused, and it’s that moment of questioning that leads him down the long road of discovery through the rest of the movie.
Todd joins Viola (Daisy Ridley) not just because “girl girl pretty yellow hair girl” but because it’s his chance to do something that matters. This turning point highlights Holland’s ability to portray the deep earnestness in Todd’s longing, inadequacy, and determination. It’s also crucial for Todd as a character because, barely half an hour into the movie, he’s already throwing away what was established as his central desire at the outset of the film: his desperate yearning for approval from the men of the town.
Yet this desire mattered, because it changes the way he and the mayor interact for the rest of the film. Todd isn’t working against his long-term adversary; he’s running from someone he respected and idolized. And even as he turns his back on that lifelong dream, his journey also, ironically, teaches him how much he has to lose. He hated his life, but throwing in his lot with Viola ultimately results in the death of everyone he didn’t realize he cared so much about. While Ben and Kilian both call him “son,” Todd never shows any affection for them in return until long after he’s left them behind.
Todd’s vulnerabilities, most notably his inability to control his noise, are balanced by his knowledge. He grew up in this harsh world that Viola suddenly finds herself in. Yet Todd’s knowledge is also unreliable, which is what makes this mystery so compelling. While our first few questions are the same ones Viola is asking, the answers take us places Todd never knew existed. He’s learning just as much as she is, yet he is far more affected by this new knowledge because it goes against everything he thought he knew.
Meanwhile, Viola needs Todd as her guide, yet she’s just as suited as he is to survive in the wild and, in some respects, moreso. She has a different kind of intelligence than he does; where he is resourceful and quick in an emergency, she is clever, intuitive, and perceptive. Their strengths and weaknesses complement one another rather than competing, and they make sense given their backgrounds. For instance, Viola can understand people’s motives even when their noise is silent, since she grew up in an environment where that was necessary, but she’s unable to swim, since she’s spent her whole life in zero gravity.
Todd and Viola’s relationship epitomizes the expected challenges that come with the film’s premise on an interpersonal level. Their dynamic is contrasted against the established social orders of Prentisstown and Farbranch.
The most obvious problem they face is the clear tension between unconscious thought and conscious will, especially social filters. Before they’ve even gotten to know each other, Viola can see everything Todd is thinking, even when it’s embarrassing, aggressive, or emotionally vulnerable. He’s constantly rushing to apologize for his thoughts: “I didn’t mean to think that!” “Don’t pay attention to that!” “I’m not going to do that!” Todd’s inability to control his noise is his greatest vulnerability, but it’s also what gives Viola the confidence to trust him.
This is a source of both humor and emotional impact throughout the film. Todd’s attraction to Viola is certainly played for laughs, which toed right up to the line for me. It was executed with delicate enough timing that it lightened the film and felt honest rather than forced, but had there been much more of it, it would have gotten old fast. The kiss fake-out halfway through the movie was excellent, though, a playful jab at a tired trope.
Meanwhile, Todd’s visible thoughts during critical revelations and following the death of his dog Banshee added emotional weight to these powerful moments without feeling cheap. We see his reactions without him having to overshare, and Viola engages with them despite his silence. His desires being so readily apparent contributes to his vulnerability while making him an incredibly sympathetic character to watch.
It also creates a unique dynamic between him and Viola. In the same way that it’s scary for her to hear his noise, it’s scary for him to not be able to hear hers. He has to learn to read her in a way he’s never had to read anyone else. His noise reveals when he imparts intentions or thoughts to her, rightly or wrongly, giving her the opportunity to comment or correct him. This is my headcanon for why he strips down to battle the monster for lunch but later hops into the bathtub with all his clothes on—he could tell getting naked made her uncomfortable, but he’s not aware enough to deduce why. Meanwhile, she’s far more adept with Prentiss and the people of Farbranch than he is.
This premise doesn’t force itself to be an analogue for any roles of men or women in real life, which I kept expecting it to be and was thankful it never forced itself into. I was also pleasantly shocked to find that the movie about one woman in a world full of men is not about sex. In fact, the topic of reproduction isn’t even touched on, and Todd is by far the most sexualized character in the movie. But “Chaos Walking” does explore gender dynamics; it just approaches it from a hypothetical perspective within the self-contained context of New World.
I’m going to further explore the larger themes of “Chaos Walking” in part two of my review, so stay tuned. My intellectual reaction to this movie has a lot to do with those big concepts, but my emotional reaction to it has to do with what I’ve discussed here: the character-driven core to the story.
Overall, for a movie set on a different planet with near-future technology and visible thoughts, “Chaos Walking” feels, more than anything, genuine. Where the mystery unfolds, it’s because the characters are living through the answers. Where the dialogue is funny or predictable or surprising or emotionally charged, it’s because the characters are acting as people would. And where there remain unanswered questions or loose ends, it’s because the world is bigger than just the slice of it our characters are exploring.
Breanna Beers is a senior Molecular Biology major and the Editor-in-Chief of Cedars. She loves exercising curiosity, hiking new trails, and citrus tea.