In Patrick Ness’ novel The Knife of Never Letting Go, the author writes “The noise is a man’s thoughts unfiltered, and without a filter, a man is just chaos walking”...
...Director Doug Liman loved this line, and so chose Chaos Walking for the title of his film adaptation of Ness’ book. Altering the title allows the work to both encompass the full Chaos Walking book series and give us a different image to consider when we think of a fantasy world. Often when looking at a future community gone off the rails, fans and critics alike will use the term “dystopian.” While this might be accurate in some cases, in others, using the word “anti-utopia” might prove more accurate. The words might seem interchangeable—scholars even still disagree on the nuances between the two—but the differences mean a lot. Basically, a dystopia is a utopia gone wrong. Humans created an ideal way to live, but at some point, the whole plan went tits up and now everyone must live with the mistakes. An anti-utopia on the other hand does not come from failed greatness. Instead, it presents poor, broke, evil humans with no hope of improvement. A dystopia has a structure and plans, they just suck. An anti-utopia on the other hand...just has chaos.
Chaos Walking begins with a boy and his dog trekking through the woods where the only sounds are giant insects and the swirling thoughts which surround our main character’s head. In this New World, men’s inner monologue exists as visual and audible thought clouds known as Noise. Tom Holland (Spider-Man: Homecoming) plays Todd Hewitt, the only boy left in Prentisstown. The youth lives a poor existence and often earns attention (both favorable and not) from a few people in the town. The bullies pick on Todd for his innocence, but the more calculated men appreciate the boy’s demeanor. In a world where inner thoughts get projected for everyone to see, the calm, reflective introverts hold the upper hand over the more brash and quick-to-action extraverts.
At the beginning of the film, we do not know why thoughts now appear audible, but we know the older generation had to adapt to the change. The constant chatter from everyone on screen creates an unsettling cacophony of sounds and, even when alone, Todd’s inner monologue follows the speech pattern of a schizophrenic. Think a more obnoxious version of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, but instead of people singing songs to show their emotions, we get rumbly insight into every male on screen. In a community filled with men and ruled by a man who hates women, the theme of toxic masculinity plays a huge role in the film and actually gets a bit exhausting at times. The Mayor wants to conquer all men and even Todd’s inner thoughts echo an overly masculine focused lifestyle as he continually begs himself to be a man whenever faced with decisions or even emotions.
Speaking of males, the viewer will also immediately notice there are no women. A quick observation of the daily activities of Prentisstown and anyone would notice a staggering amount of testosterone walking around. Todd comments on never seeing someone of the opposite sex, so similar to other anti-utopian movies like Children of Men, the human population runs the risk of simply aging out of existence. Todd even titles himself as “The Last Boy” and wonders what will happen when everyone else dies and only he remains.
Todd’s thoughts of loneliness are short lived when a scouting ship crash lands on New World and Daisy Ridley’s (The Force Awakens) character Viola finds herself the only female inhabitant of Prentisstown. Fortunately, the planet’s effect on thoughts does not extend to women (Y-Chromosome only). Unfortunately, hiding her thoughts is the only security she is permitted. The men have not seen women for years and the younger generations only know not to trust girls. Basically, Viola landed on Planet Incel led by ostentatiously dressed Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal) aka Mayor Prentiss as the self-appointed leader of the town. The Mayor wants to keep everything the way he likes it, so Viola must be stopped before she can contact her ship. Therefore, Todd appoints himself protector of the new arrival and the two (along with the dog) leave Prentisstown.
Aside from Mayor Prentiss, his son Davy (Nick Jonas), and several townsmen, Todd and Viola must battle several other adversaries along the way. Liman and author/screenplay writer Patrick Ness do a fantastic job with world building as the viewers encounter local wildlife (all apparently dangerous) and the native inhabitants known as the Spackle. Aside from the other people and creatures, Chaos Walking presents astonishing visual effects and beautifully shot scenery. The series of books the film is based undoubtedly explores a vastly descriptive planet with numerous characters. However, one character does not seem to translate well from book to screen. A violent priest named Aaron (David Oyelowo) targets Todd but does not seem to hold an alliance to the Mayor either. Sort of a third-party rival whose purpose in the film does not actually become clear until much later in the story. And even then, his character never fully develops into the villain he could have been. The priest basically just appears every twenty minutes or so to remind you he is terrible.
Fans of the book series might feel robbed of some of the nuances of the novels and might be unsatisfied with the end results, especially after such a delayed release. However, all adaptations must be taken with a grain of salt. Not all the glorious details of the original content could be compiled into two hours, and frankly it might have been better if the director had left some things out and focused on the core of the story. The three main characters of Todd, Viola, and Prentiss all develop nicely. Holland and Ridley do well casted as imperfect heroes, and obviously Mikkelsen is a villain you love to love (or hate). And while the story provides some hints of space travel science, largely the film focuses on human relations; the origin of the colony seems less important to explore than the clear cut good versus bad storyline. Therefore, while the grander space and New World setting might call for a dystopian label, chaos reigns in Prentisstown, which firmly places everyone in an anti-utopia.
Chaos Walking comes to theaters and IMAX from Lionsgate on March 5th.
By Amylou Ahava
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