It’s going to take a long time to reasonably excavate pandemic-era cinema. As Walter Chaw’s wonderful Best of 2021 list illustrates, any given year of film is rich with treasures, many doomed to obscurity. Streaming platforms have made movies simultaneously easier to access and harder to keep track of (remember that time Netflix released a long-unavailable Orson Welles picture?). The pandemic has only exacerbated matters, throwing production and release schedules into disarray (and also killing a lot of people). A new Studio Ghibli movie saw US distribution earlier last year and I barely noticed.
Then there are curios like Chaos Walking. A film seemingly cursed long before the pandemic, its quiet release last spring was something of a mercy killing. Based on the Patrick Ness young adult novel The Knife of Never Letting Go (book one of a trilogy), the film is a dystopian science fiction western starring Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland. Its long, pricey (~$100 million) production dates back to 2011. Obama was still in his first presidential term when Lionsgate, readying the release of its first Hunger Games, acquired the distribution rights to an adaptation of the trilogy.
But unlike The Hunger Games, with its relatively straightforward premise of young people forced into gladiatorial combat for an amused oligarchy, Chaos Walking is built on one doozy of a conceit: Humans have colonized a planet that causes men to involuntarily project their thoughts for all to see and hear, a phenomenon called “Noise.” Noise poses several narrative and filmmaking challenges, some absolutely mortifying to contemplate, so Lionsgate turned to auteur screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (!) to write the first draft of the script (Ness and Christopher Ford are the final credited screenwriters).
It was a perversely inspired choice. With projects like Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman has proven extremely adept at dramatizing the squirmy unease of being trapped with your own thoughts. I haven’t read the source material, but according to the filmmaker commentary accompanying Chaos Walking‘s Blu-ray release, Kaufman’s draft is rather faithful, featuring 13-year-old protagonists and Noise-afflicted talking animals.
This means that Chaos Walking was this close to being the A Boy and His Dog spiritual successor I didn’t know I needed in my life.
The movie we ended up with centers on Todd (Holland), a young man in a small agrarian community of grizzled men. The female colonizers, immune to Noise, are long dead—killed off, we are informed by village patriarch Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen), by an indigenous species called the Spackle. Whether the Spackle themselves project Noise goes unexplored in the film, as well as why women’s lack of Noise might so offend them, but it doesn’t matter. Chaos Walking is about the mythologies societies tell themselves to help rationalize past atrocities and maintain present order. The colonizers call this planet New World. Chaos Walking is not big on subtlety.
Todd is unable to control his Noise. His inner monologue is spoken aloud in pesky voice-over narration, his insecurities and frustrations laid bare, and so in crowded areas and moments of duress he mentally repeats his own name like a mantra. In addition to sound, the Noise is visualized as a sputtering, computer generated fog that hovers over characters’ heads, a gaseous oil slick reminiscent of Annihilation‘s “Shimmer.” Because Chaos Walking is intended for young people, depictions of the Noise don’t go much further than flickering memories and conjured illusions. At one point Todd passes by a sleeping man, his dreams projecting… baseball.
A spaceship crashes on New World, its sole survivor a young woman named Viola (Ridley). Prentiss believes that this portends ill for their insular way of life, so Viola and Todd go on the run in search of the ruins of a colony ship in the hope that Viola might E.T. her way home. Action set-pieces ensue, including a chase in which Viola flees on a motorcycle with men on horseback in pursuit. Donald Kaufman lives.
Given the reported myriad production setbacks and scheduling complications, test screenings and reshoots, it’s a small miracle Chaos Walking turned out as coherently as it did. Director Doug Liman and his team seem to have smoothed out whatever once rendered Chaos Walking “unreleasable,” perhaps excessively so. Though competent, its action lacks the ingenuity of earlier Liman pictures The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow.
The film looks great, all lush wilderness that helps distinguish it from the usual muddy greys characteristic of dystopian fiction. I also appreciate its refusal to end with a sequel hook in an age of sprawling franchise management and table-setting stingers. The end credits are just that—a list of people who worked very hard to realize this oddity.
I’m glad Chaos Walking exists, but I’m more intrigued by the darker, weirder movie lurking beneath its surface.