Audiences, for the most part, appear to have hated this film. Disappointing feedback from early test screenings lead to extensive reshoots (and a substantial delay because stars Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland were tied up filming The Rise of Skywalker and Far From Home) and then when it was eventually released in April it got poor reviews and relatively few ticket sales or downloads, some of which COVID can be blamed for but not all. The film cost $100 million but has made little more than a fifth of that. I suspect that most people that did see the film took against it in the first fifteen minutes and that the story and performances weren’t able to win them back, but it isn’t terrible. I for one do not regret giving it my £4.99 now it is available for standard iTunes rental.
Here’s the problem. Chaos Walking, relatively loosely adapted by Patrick Ness from his own novel The Knife of Never Letting Go, presents a world where all of the men’s thoughts are externalised and played out around their heads with accompanying audio and visuals. I’m sure this worked well enough on the page but on screen it becomes very annoying, very quickly. Another failed book to movie transfer, 2007’s The Golden Compass, had a similar problem with Lyra’s dæmon, itself an external representation of the character’s private ruminations and emotions, that kept describing what we could see happening on screen as if all of her reactions needed to be verbalised. Well, unfortunately here the set up means that many of the main player’s reactions do need to be verbalised and it is infuriating. It may be narratively necessary but it just comes across as a lot of frustratingly leaden exposition.
Let me give you an example. Daisy Ridley is Viola and her space ship has crashed outside of town. She is a person of particular interest for reasons I will come to later so Mads Mikkelsen’s mayor locks her up leaving his son to watch her. This is how it plays out:
Mikkelsen, referred to by his son as Pa, tells junior not to talk to the girl and then leaves. Recalling what has just happened we see Pa telling his son not to talk to the girl and then leaving again, this time projected as images around said son’s head. The son then thinks/says ‘Pa said don’t talk to her but Pa left’. That’s two visuals representations of the same action and one verbal description of it in about four seconds and this happens repeatedly all the way through. God, it’s irritating. Even when this kind of replaying isn’t happening, you have all the men who effectively just won’t shut up, all the time. This phenomenon is called ‘the noise’ and they’re not kidding. As I say, probably fine when you are reading it but they have not found a way to make it work in the movie without driving viewers insane.
This maddening little habit that the fellas have also raises a few narrative questions. Midway through young Todd learns about the town’s dark past; a truth that had been kept from his generation but that all of the adults know and never speak of. That’s the thing though, even if you are tight lipped in this place, the truth literally leaks out. How would he not have caught some inkling of this secret that is preying on the elder’s minds? I mean, when you dream in this reality it is shown above your head like a little movie on an invisible TV. They even talk about how it is impossible to keep a secret yet they’ve managed to keep this big one. I don’t buy it.
You’d think this would all be exasperating for the women but that’s the other thing; there aren’t any. This is where the film gets interesting because what happens to gender identity when there is only one gender? They could certainly explore this more but there is some examination of this and it is fascinating. ‘Being a man’ is a big issue for Todd, presumably because of the expectations put on him in this respect by his father and other authority figures. Yet how can he have an authentic appreciation of being a man when there are no females? What you have here are notions of gender created entirely by society and not by experience which could be saying something significant about the real world beyond this fictional one. We also have an environment where women are revered, literally as mythical creatures, yet sexism prevails. There are some nice moments where Todd underestimates Viola because ignorance and upbringing have taught him that women are inferior and there’s a message here too. All of this gives the film a different feminist edge that I enjoyed. That big secret when it comes might undermine this a little as we learn that this misogyny isn’t as subtly insidious as it at first seemed but even with things being laid on a little thick, the analogies are there.
Outside of all of this Chaos Walking has a captivating enough story. Ridley and Holland are both good and bounce off each other nicely. You might assume that growing up without girls around would make you asexual or gay but the fact that here it doesn’t also says something good about how sexuality is not related to circumstances which those with other outdated prejudices need to hear. The thoughts that a hetero kid would have if suddenly in the company of a girl for the first time are also explored a little and Viola’s response to this only strengthens her own character and autonomy.
Not terrible then even if, as the poster so rightly says, you can’t escape the noise.