Where does one draw the line between an original idea and a gimmick? It’s a question that haunts Chaos Walking, Doug Liman’s adaptation of Patrick Ness’s 2008 YA novel The Knife of Never Letting Go. On a recently colonized dystopian planet pointedly dubbed New World, men’s thoughts are (for the most part) involuntarily audible and to some extent visible to others. The film does an adequate job of translating this mental “Noise,” as it’s called, to an audio-visual medium, but for the first 10 minutes or so, the barrage of thoughts, accompanied by prismatic wisps of imagery that flash around characters’ heads before dissipating, can feel like a stimulus overload, as the viewer is tasked with triangulating the characters’ thoughts from the actors’ dialogue and body language. And yet, the film is committed enough to the device that we quickly learn to accept it.
Sadly, Chaos Walking only scratches the surface of the implications of its premise. A faithful transcript of a New Worlder’s stream of consciousness should be, as the film’s title implies, chaotic: a jumble of half-formed associations bouncing between the mundane and the bizarre, but everyone’s “Noise” here is pretty straightforward, even utilitarian. In one scene where Todd (Tom Holland) is digging beets out of his father’s field, we get a tantalizing glimpse of an alternate version of the film when he wonders if it’s possible to die from boredom, but the film doesn’t push further than that. It feels like a missed opportunity to explore how thoughts can become free-floating in the midst of New World’s repetitive drudgery.
Chaos Walking also doesn’t explain why, exactly, women’s thoughts aren’t similarly manifested, since, after all, there’s more than a whiff of gender essentialism to the “Noise.” For that matter, given that the main female character’s (Daisy Ridley) thoughts are hidden by design, the film struggles to find another way of imbuing her with as nuanced a personality as Todd’s. True, this isn’t Mrs. Dalloway, but it’s still unfortunate how most characters’ thoughts end up as plot vehicles, rather than insights into inner turmoil or the nature of mental activity.
The plot itself is bog-standard. An advance scout of the second wave of colonists, Ridley’s Viola crash-lands on the seemingly all-male New World near Prentistown. Todd happens to be the one to find her, and he can’t keep the discovery secret because his thoughts are public. Looking to hold onto what power he has, Prentis (Mads Mikkelsen), the town’s sinister yet charismatic mayor, aims to prevent Viola from contacting her spacecraft and initiating the next wave of colonization. Todd and Viola, chased by Prentis and his henchmen, journey to another settlement, where she hopes to find means of contacting her ship. On the way, they learn more about each other and the world as Todd has been indoctrinated to know it unravels.
Chaos Walking is at its strongest when dramatizing how characters control their thoughts, using them as tools, even weapons, in a world familiar from such sci-fi/western mash-ups as Firefly and Cowboy Bebop. The source of Prentis’s power is his ability to keep his thoughts hidden from others, except when he allows them to manifest in the form of convincing illusions. The film also effectively shows how an edifice of lies and secrets can become a reality to those who live and breathe them, especially in insular communities bent on survival. Further, it hints toward the insidious ideology of “man” as an agent of domestication, dominating both inner and outer “chaos,” as it operated in the colonization of the Americas. In one scene, Viola reminds Todd that they, the colonizers, are the aliens from the perspective of the indigenous Spackle, whom the colonists are halfway through exterminating.
Any truly barbed indictment of colonialism, though, is sabotaged by the fact that the Spackle scarcely make an appearance, to the point that they come to feel like an afterthought. Worse, the film’s ending offers some vague, less patriarchal version of colonialism as the only way forward for humanity, having long since trashed Earth. While there are flashes of sympathy for those at the receiving end of manliness, Chaos Walking remains at its core a film about men and masculinity, toxic or otherwise. The film’s most imaginative ideas end up as little more than set dressing for a rather conventional story, as opposed to seeds that might have structured it in some radically new way. Beneath its perfectly entertaining surface, Chaos Walking is a mess of contradictions that fails to live up to its own potential.