One of the things I intensely dislike about the art of watching films in this century is how much it’s possible to know about a film before seeing an actual frame of it. For those paying any kind of attention, you likely know that Chaos Walking (based upon the book The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, who adapted the screenplay with Christopher Ford) had some trouble getting finished. While the bulk of the photography was done in Montreal in the back half of 2017 by director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and the recent Locked Down), extensive reshoots were needed. But because of the ridiculously busy schedules of co-leads Tom Holland and Daisey Ridley, they couldn’t be accomplished until the middle of 2019 in Atlanta, with director Fede Alvarez helping out Liman to get it all done on an impossibly tight schedule.
This is not the first time Liman has had production problems, but somehow he always manages to scrape something together that is exciting, entertaining, and a bit nuts to boot. And if you didn’t know there were so many issues during its making, you probably wouldn’t know from the finished film either, which is a testament to his capabilities—and probably the exceptional editing skills of Doc Crotzer. The book is the first in the Chaos Walking trilogy, so there are a few unanswered questions that some may interpret as loose ends here. And while I can’t imagine more installments of a franchise are on the way, the story is left uncomfortably vague as to whether Liman believed he was wrapping things up or leaving open the possibility that someone might pick up the reigns of this strange tale of a far away planet where men’s thoughts can be heard and seen and the women appear to have vanished from this micro-society.
Set in 2257, in a story in which Earth is never seen, Chaos Walking sets us on a colony that has clearly been set up out of necessity, one that is made up entirely of men. Something in the atmosphere results in a phenomenon called “the Noise,” a force that puts all male thoughts on full audio-visual display. Some inhabitants have trained themselves to hide their feelings better than others, but young Todd Hewitt (Holland) is just learning to do so, usually by just repeating his name in his head any time he wants a feeling hidden.
The pecking order in this settlement is clear, and Todd is at the lowest rung. He still lives with his father Ben (Demián Bichir) and his partner Cillian (Kurt Sutter). It’s never explicitly discussed, but I wonder if the lack of women in this community left the men no choice but to pair up, if only to approximate a traditional two-parent household. The leader of the community is Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen), and it’s probably no coincidence that he seems to be able to hide and control his feelings better than anyone. Like all small town leaders, he has an entitled-asshole son (Nick Jonas) who acts like he’s second-in-command when it’s clear his father is embarrassed and annoyed by him. There’s also a religious component to this society, embodied by a fire-and-brimstone preacher (David Oyelowo) whose thoughts are terrifying and filled with destruction. The community feels like an old Western town, an agrarian society populated by rugged types, a few of which (like Todd) are handy around machines.
The details of how and why these people have travelled to this far-away planet go largely unspoken. Todd mentions missing his mother, but how she died isn’t discussed. The fact that this society is doomed to die out with no women around is also never brought up, which might be the weirdest part of this whole tale. One day, Todd sees a figure sneaking out of the barn on his farm and chases them to the wreckage of a space craft, which he immediately realizes is a scouting party for a larger group of space travelers from earth that set sail for this planet decades earlier. The figure turns out to be the sole survivor of the scouting party, Viola (Ridley), and Todd is amazed that her thoughts are quiet, while his are giving away his every feeling about meeting his first female.
When word of her arrival reaches the Mayor, he immediately wants to take possession of her for reasons that seem more about covering up something in the community’s past than anything else. It’s clear almost from the first frame of the movie that something strange and hidden is afoot regarding the lack of women, but it’s their ability to hide their feelings that seems to threaten the men more than anything. Todd decides to help Viola head to the location of another crashed ship to use their communication system to signal to the coming colonists where to land and warn them that something isn’t quite right.
I’ve made it this far without even mentioning the fact that the planet is inhabited by an entirely other species with whom the humans went to war when they first arrived, and supposedly it was this species that killed all the women. At one point Todd calls them aliens, to which Viola rightly points out “Aren’t we the aliens?” But much like the film itself, I’d almost forgotten this species was even mentioned were it not for one scene where Todd runs into one and fights it to a draw. There’s certainly a metaphor to be explored about the relationship between the humans and the indigenous population, but Chaos Walking doesn’t seem the least bit interested in exploring it. Instead we get cutesy scenes of Todd imagining kissing Viola and then getting embarrassed when she hears or sees his thoughts. Adorable!
I don’t think I’m giving away too much in saying that it turns out Todd’s community is not the only human settlement on this planet, and maybe there are one or two or hundreds of non-males in said community (led by Cynthia Erivo’s Hildy), and our heroes are hesitantly befriended by this new group to make the final push to the older ship, with the Mayor and his men in hot pursuit. There may be too much plot for one film, but director Liman has never really been afraid of juggling multiple storylines to make what should be a straightforward action picture something more layered and complex. Holland once again rises above the material (as he did in last week’s Cherry), giving Todd rough edges and turning his journey into something of a coming-of age story for this awkward youth. On some level, I’m always curious to see where a story goes, but no part of me will be heartbroken if the other Chaos Walking installments never materialize.
Chaos Walking is now playing in select theaters. Please follow all CDC, Health Department and venue guidelines if you attend indoor screenings.
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