Sci-fi film Chaos Walking, featuring Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley, is a disconcerting little masterpiece of sensitive acting and well-judged world-building, says Simon Ings

Humans



21 April 2021

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Viola (Daisy Ridley) and Todd (Tom Holland) flee a dangerous settlement

Murray Close/Lionsgate

Chaos Walking

Directed by Doug Liman

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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 the 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, eponymous mayor. Watching his settlement’s secrets come to light, one by one, is one of this film’s chief pleasures.

Newly arrived, Viola (Daisy Ridley) is scouting ahead of 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 debuts 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 young adult sci-fi trilogy on which this film is based.

Chaos Walking should have ended up a mess. But while it isn’t a blockbuster, it is a real accomplishment”

By all measures, then, Chaos Walking should have ended up a mess. But while it isn’t a blockbuster, it 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.

Todd is a naif who must save Viola and get her to a nearby settlement that he never even realised existed. He is the model of what a man must be in 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 attention.

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 granted to the settlers of New World. Only good will and superhuman patience prevent human society going up like a powder keg. This has happened once in Prentisstown, and – given the stalled settlement of the planet – it has almost certainly occurred elsewhere.

Chaos Walking isn’t, 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.

Simon recommends…

Book

Dying Inside

Robert Silverberg

Before he drank the sword-and-sorcery Kool-Aid, boy could Silverberg write! For years, New Yorker David Selig has been using his telepathic abilities for his own convenience. Now his gift is fading, and with it his grip on reality.

The Demolished Man

Alfred Bester

The book that won the first ever Hugo award for best novel. Ben Reich plans to kill a rival under the noses of a telepathic police force. If he is caught, he will be taken apart, thought by thought.

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