8/10 Chaos Walking is a troubled, inventive exploration of masculine crisis and fear of the self that executes its main hook cleverly and evocatively. It’s a valuable meditation for an era of men inundated by stories of our peers’ abuses and the abuse-as-political identity that characterized Donald Trump’s rise to power.
A seemingly unnamed new world, 2257- humanity is 23 years into the colonization of a strange new planet on which all sentient males are affected by “the noise,” a psychic field that constantly projects their thoughts around their heads. Females are immune to this phenomenon. From the books this movie is based on, “the noise is a man unfiltered, and a man without a filter is just chaos walking.”
Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland) is the last boy born before the sentient native species slaughtered all the colony’s women. He discovers Viola Eade (Daisy Ridley), herself the only survivor of a shuttle from the second wave of colonizers that crash-landed near Prentisstown. She’s taken in, but Mayor David Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen) and Prentisstown’s all-male population quickly turns on her. Hewitt’s adoptive parents task him with protecting and escorting her to the next town over, despite him having been told that Prentisstown was the only surviving city.
The noise is Chaos Walking’s most distinctive visual and narrative feature. It consists of a halo of purple energy around men’s heads that broadcasts the basic thoughts and images inside their mind, often limited to single words. This completely eliminates the ability to hide either information or physical location – the noise rises out of hiding locations, giving them away, and groups of men can be seen for miles out, even over the forest canopy.
Characters’ degree of control over their noise varies drastically – Hewitt has his racing mind constantly on display, and any time he wants to hide something, the best he can do is frantically chant “I am Todd Hewitt,” which obviously doesn’t work because it tips everyone around him off to the fact that he’s hiding something. Aaron (David Oyelowo), the town’s distressing preacher who thinks the noise has something to do with the apocalypse, constantly surrounds his entire body in the fire and brimstone he sees. Mayor Prentiss has complete, intimidating control over his noise and others’. He is silent when he wants to be and uses his noise actively, broadcasting his thoughts over great distances to communicate or projecting illusions for tactical effect. He’s also clearly practiced in interrogating other men’s noise directly, calmly battering them with simple questions until they give up what he wants to know.
Chaos Walking’s biggest and most consistent failure is the way Ben Seresin’s cinematography clashes with the noise. The graphics explode out of characters’ heads, but they’re not usually given headroom to compensate for that, so in effect, the graphics explode out of the point of focus and often completely out of frame. The goal seems to have been some thrust at harsh realism, emphasizing shaky camerawork and close shots, and that effect is imparted quite well, but they needed to find a way to incorporate it better with the signature effects.
Chaos Walking presents a world in which several paradigms of modern masculinity are not only outdated and corrosive in the long term, but hopelessly impractical and dangerous day-to-day. How can you maintain the self-image that masculinity demands when you know with certainty in detail what everyone really thinks of you? How can you meet insults with violence when the men around you can’t control whether or not they insult you? Despite everyone being functionally telepathic, there’s no extra empathy, no flexible ego to fit in with the culture of enforced brutal honesty. Instead, they all just fight constantly.
Holland spectacularly walks the many tightropes playing Hewitt entails. With Eade, he’s a teenager navigating not only the first person he’s ever been attracted to but the first person who’s ever been able to keep secrets from him. Prentisstown’s misogyny is at once given concrete justification by women being immune to the noise and also laid bare as a preexisting ugliness, and Hewitt, who protects Eade fiercely and is a frontiersman so feral that wrestling tentacle monsters to death is a casual thing for him, is so deeply indoctrinated in this culture of insecurity that he’s constantly telling himself to “be a man” while easily acing every test before him.
No one addresses Hewitt’s severe indoctrination directly. It’s sad to not see this clearly decent person not get the help he needs, but there’s several reasons for this. He clearly needs to sort himself out, but at least he isn’t trying to murder Eade, and he is one of the only characters who can say that. There also isn’t time – he’s buried in a labyrinth of Prentisstown’s lies and the liking he thinks Mayor Prentiss has taken to him. Because Prentiss controls his noise so well, he’s the only person whom Hewitt has never heard insult him, a fact that doubles the allure of a powerful man who tells Hewitt he’s special. Mikkelson is stellar as the subtle cult leader.
Chaos Walking took a long and troubled path to theaters and has a long and troubled path before it – or more likely a very short one. The adaptation of Patrick Ness’ dystopian young adult novels was announced way back in 2011, and Lionsgate held it up as the heir apparent to its Hunger Games series at a point when the studio was interested in monopolizing that space of darker young adult adaptations, then later as a more interesting alternative to superhero movies. They brought in Charlie Kaufman to adapt the screenplay, then it was rewritten by six different writers, with Christopher Ford and Ness getting final writing credits. In 2013, it was announced they wanted Robert Zemeckis to direct, and then there’s no word until Doug Liman was hired in 2016. In April 2018, it was announced that Lionsgate had to do extensive reshoots after poor test screenings, but by that point Holland and Ridley were big stars with full schedules and they weren’t able to start until 2019.
Further kept from theaters by the pandemic, the $100 million film stumbled to a pitiful $3.8 million opening last weekend behind two movies that are available for home streaming, one of them already a week old. It’s a terrible fate for a movie that was supposed to be a large-scale alternative, a victim of the pandemic-caused bottleneck of ready content and likely a studio that just wanted to be rid of it. There’s a logic to blaming the poor performance on the unique circumstances, but with a 22% Rotten Tomatoes score and a decade of heartache already, that seems unlikely.
Chaos Walking brings a decent execution of an interesting and urgent premise, a great cast and a wonderfully imagined colonial world, and it’s one of the only movies exclusively in theaters right now. Anyone looking for that real big-budget experience should look its way.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.