Smart and engaging, this young adult dystopian fiction is a cut above, with convincing performances and an interesting backstory of ideas
M, 109 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
It seems plausible that around 230 years from now, events may have taken the world that we know backwards as well as forwards. It’s not implausible.
There may be people hurtling around in space who were born aboard a spaceship. Who have never experienced anything but being in transit while they and their communities search for a ‘new world’.
At the same time, on terra firma, there might well be other communities who are isolated in rural regions. They have dug in deep to survive, cutting themselves off from the outside world.
Chaos Walking is based on The Knife of Never Letting Go. It is the first book of the young adult, speculative fiction trilogy by British-American author Patrick Ness that has him won prestigious awards. Ness collaborated with Christopher Ford on this screenplay.
In the film’s early scenes, the main characters, Todd (Tom Holland) and Viola (Daisy Ridley) are on a collision course. Two young people, human but from alien worlds.
Like her namesake in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, Viola (Daisy Ridley), arrives out of nowhere, the survivor of a wrecked spacecraft. However, she and Todd are both descended from earth originally, from settlers who left Earth in search of a better home.
Viola’s grandparents were the last people in her family to have had contact with Earth, and everything she has ever known is pre-fabricated. She is the techo who can get a motorbike to roar back into life, and restore telecommunications. Todd is the sturdy resourceful woodsman.
Todd is helping on a farm, though something appears to stand between his gentle, clean-cut self and the other men. The men of the town, including the Mayor’s son who is resentful of his father’s interest in Todd, are distant too. Todd is an outsider.
Chaos Walking is set in a future where the post-industrial apocalypse has collided with the Wild West. It was shot in the spectacular forests of North America, that were in their day a New World too.
Within this setting of superb natural beauty lies Prestisstown, the locus of evil in Chaos Walking. It is ruled by warped religiosity, the iron fist of the mayor (Mads Mikkelsen), who is prone to whip up its vigilante posses to swarm the countryside.
It’s a town where young men are brought up to do what they want, including eating at table by spearing their food with a hunting knife. The absence of women in Prentisstown has delivered some skewed outcomes.
What happened to them, to the women like Todd’s mother? She died when he was only a few months old, and Todd has never seen a woman before Viola appears, hiding in the barn. Naturally enough, he is more than curious about the pretty girl with yellow hair whose thoughts he cannot read.
Oh yes, the men of Prentisstown can barely keep their thoughts to themselves. It is the result of a germ unleashed on them, after the war with the New World’s indigenous people that took all their women away.
The men’s thoughts are constantly heard in the air. In the film’s visual language, this concept is achieved with swirling FX that work surprisingly well.
Mastering the cacophony of sound a man produces, his ‘noise’, is in their culture the sign that manhood has been attained.
Director Doug Liman is intimately connected with the action adventure genre, in particular the Bourne series. He delivers vigour and conviction to the many chase scenes.
There are some very good actors here, like David Oyelowo and Demian Bichir, to help ease the narrative through any issues with credibility.
Ridley and Holland are both appealing young leads. Holland has been a promising young actor for some time.
We could have done without the scene where he drops his dacks and gets into a he-man wrestle with a long, large reptile. It’s on the edge of risible, but at least we didn’t see the scaly creature.
Mikkelsen, sporting two spectacular scars across his cheek and lording it over all in Prentisstown, makes a plausible villain. Not entirely evil, and with enough human traits to make him really dangerous.
Chaos Walking, neither unrelievedly dark nor horrifically violent, pitches well to its YA audience. This British American production is clearly paving the way for sequels, and why not?
First published in the Canberra Times on 7 March 2021
*Featured image: Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley in Chaos Walking. Courtesy Lionsgate