In Chaos Walking, Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland) is learning to be a man – and in Prentisstown, ostensibly the only settlement to survive humanity’s arrival on the planet New World, this means keeping your thoughts to yourself.
Something about the planet makes men’s consciousness audible and visible to others. As such, they must constantly hide their thoughts by focusing on something else, rehearsing daily chores or even just reciting their own names again and again. Women were unaffected, apparently, but rarely glimpsed aliens called Spackle killed them all years ago, condemning the settlement to eventual extinction.
If this account of things seems a little off, imagine it delivered by an especially troubled-looking Mads Mikkelsen, who plays Prentisstown’s mysterious mayor. Watching his settlement’s secrets come to light, one by one, is one of this film’s chief pleasures.
Newly arrived from space, Viola (Daisy Ridley) is scouting for a second wave of settlers when her landing craft all but burns up, leaving her at the mercy of the men of Prentisstown. You might think they would be glad of her arrival– but you would be wrong.
Chaos Walking arrives under something of a cloud. To begin with, no one could settle on a script they liked. Charlie Kaufman (of Being John Malkovich fame) got the first bite of the writerly cherry, before the project was passed from pillar to post and ended up being crafted by Christopher Ford (writer of Spider-Man: Homecoming) and Patrick Ness, author of The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first book of the young adult sci-fi trilogy on which this film is based.
By all measures, then, Chaos Walking should have ended up a mess. But while it isn’t the blockbuster that Lionsgate may have expected or needed, Chaos Walking is, nonetheless, a real accomplishment: a disconcerting little masterpiece of sensitive acting and well-judged world-building.
In this film, men quite literally cannot shut up, and in her very first conversation with Mayor Prentiss, it dawns on Viola that this gives her huge advantages. She is the only person here who can lie and keep secrets, crucial points made almost entirely in dialogue-free reaction shots.
Holland’s Todd is a naif, who must save Viola and get her to a neighbouring settlement that he never even realised existed – a place where women survive and (because of the men’s psychic disadvantages) have ended up running things.
Todd is the model of what a man must be in this New World: polite, honest and circumspect. His bid to “be a man” in such circumstances is anything but straightforward, but Holland keeps our sympathy and our regard.
Indeed, the great strength of Chaos Walking is that it interrogates gender roles by creating genuine difficulties for its characters. Even Prentisstown’s misogynist preacher Aaron (surely David Oyelowo’s least rewarding role yet) turns out to make a certain amount of dreadful sense.
No gender truly benefits from the strange, telepathic gifts bestowed on half the human settlers of New World. Only good will and superhuman patience prevents human society going up like a powder keg.
This has happened once in Prentisstown, and – given the weirdly stalled settlement of the planet – it has almost certainly occurred elsewhere. New World’s architecture and technology are an uneasy and creative mishmash of battered industrial machinery and the Western genre’s make-do-and-mend approach.
The effect is oddly unsettling, particularly in the sequence where riders on horseback pursue each other through a forest whose trees have very obviously been planted in rows.
Chaos Walking isn’t a western. Neither is it, in any easy sense, a feminist fable. The film is about people’s struggles in unreasonable circumstances, and for all the angst bound up in its premise, it becomes, by the end, a charming and uplifting film about love and reconciliation.
Chaos Walking is available to rent on digital platforms now.
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