If a movie doesn’t succeed at being a good film, the next best thing is to fail in interesting ways. Chaos Walking falls short of the first goal, but it definitely says something interesting about the way Hollywood views gender and relationships.
Doug Liman’s 2021 dystopian sci-fi western film starts out with an intriguing concept. In the future, settlers from Earth discover that the New World they set out for has this weird atmospheric property that causes all male thoughts to be emitted from the mind in halo known as “noise.” The story follows Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland), a young man trying to make his way in Prentisstown, a frontier settlement where mysteriously there are no women. When Todd stumbles upon a crashed spacecraft and Viola (Daisy Ridley), the lone female survivor, the discovery forces him to grow and confront the dark truths that have been hidden in front of him for his entire life.
Plot holes and unclear motives plague both the villains and the heroes, and they create some of the more obvious drawbacks to the film. Beyond that, there’s a “preacher” character—a madman, really—riding around spewing thoughts of fire and judgment who lacks meaningful connection to the story until far too late. The film also struggles at times to find a healthy balance between humor and seriousness with all of Todd’s thoughts. The biggest issue, however, comes from Viola’s lack of depth or vulnerability. Her invincible portrayal clashes with Todd’s relentless exposure by his noise. That imbalance hinders any meaningful trust and growth between the two of them as characters, and prevents Chaos Walking from being anything more than a mediocre dystopian film.
Viola fits the modern idea of a woman perfectly. She’s strong, smart, resourceful, and can handle herself in fights once she gets over the shock of crash-landing alone on an alien world. She leverages her wits and her gadgets to escape the men of Prentisstown the first time she’s captured. When they come searching again, she hot-wires a motorcycle and makes a high-speed getaway through the woods. And later when one of the men tracks her down with leering, unsavory intent, she takes him out before Todd ever has a chance to rescue her. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with this display of strength, but it takes more than just skill or toughness to become a fully-developed person.
Todd struggles with confidence as he steps out on his own, but he’s also a very capable, rugged frontiersman. He rides horses, handles boats, and whips his knife around with amazing dexterity. Add a caring, protective heart on top of that, and you really have a great character. The film, however, wavers between seeing him as a strong, admirable young man and the bumbling male sidekick that seems to become more common these days. When they’re rappelling into an abandoned spaceship, Todd struggles while Viola stands impatiently at the bottom asking if he’s going to be okay. When they set out walking toward the new settlement, it’s the woodsman Todd who first asks to stop for a breather, not the girl who just arrived and lived her entire life in the sterile confines of a spaceship. While she carries this untouchable air, the question should be asked which of them chooses to dive naked into a lake and attack a large-tentacled space creature with only a knife. (Hint: it’s not Daisy Ridley’s character).
Strength aside, the biggest difference between these two characters is their level of emotional vulnerability. Todd literally wears his heart on his sleeve due to his “noise” being open to everyone. The desire to “be a man” echoes repeatedly in his thoughts along with his youthful regard for the girl he just met. For Viola, we don’t see a lot of her thoughts or development at all. It doesn’t take an alien world’s atmosphere to know what someone thinks when clues like one’s voice, facial expressions, or words provide insight all the time. The film hints at the disappointment she feels at how this new world experience differs from whatever she imagined it would be, but it never explores those emotions fully. Viola eventually talks with Todd about her backstory, how she lost her parents in space and how they wanted a better life for her. We don’t really see the fear of being alone in a strange new world with dangerous men play out in the depth that this story could offer. Viola seems duty-bound to get a message to her ship, but there’s no direct link between her personal struggles and her mission that usually exists in an action film. And for all that, she seems flat and a little uncaring.
The film glosses over plenty of chances to see her show real emotion. In one scene when they try to escape by boat, Viola frantically tells Todd, “I can’t swim!” as he cuts the boat free. The audience hears it in her voice, but the camera stays on a wide shot and only glances at the terror in her face. And after Todd has to make the gut-wrenching decision to help her instead of his dog, the following scene shows only his grief. We don’t see Viola shaken at all by what happened or acknowledge that she actually needed him. It’s nice to see Viola affirm Todd and his desire for virtue and goodness in their subsequent conversations, but it seems to come more from a place of tolerance than appreciation.
From the river scene onward, the film becomes pretty unremarkable. After a couple more large action sequences, Viola completes the mission to contact her ship, and Todd eventually confronts the villain Prentiss, seeing him for the coward and monster he really is. Both hero and heroine work simultaneously toward these goals, but the lack of openness between them undermines the sense that they really do it together.
The desire for strong female characters makes sense, but Hollywood has overcorrected over the past several years. This unchecked pursuit of female superiority on screen runs the risk of cultivating unhealthy expectations in younger viewers, but it also comes at the expense of good storytelling. Chaos Walking shows that tension between agenda narratives and good storytelling. There are all the natural moments for this budding relationship, but the more progressive ideas feel superimposed over top of them and skew the way we see them. At some point, filmmakers may stop holding characters up to some artificial agenda and reaffirm the old truths: that men and women are best when they trust, respect, and protect one another and use their strengths to pursue more than some lonely ideal of self-fulfillment. For now, all Chaos Walking has to offer is a neat concept and a shell of what could have been a decent film.