CHAOS WALKING is a somber affair told in muddy earth tones and moribund action. Based on the book The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, it presents New World in the year 2257, a distant planet colonized by religious humans who have brought with them much of what they should have left back on Earth. And, being so far from the mitigating effects of ecumenicalism to offer resistance, taking it to its logical extremes. As a commentary on the patriarchy and fanaticism, it’s heavy-handed. As a tale of first love and the discovery of broader horizons, it has its charms, thanks to Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley.
The chaos of the title is a reference to what happened to the male of the species upon arriving on their new home. That would be the sudden audio/visual manifestation of their every thought accompanied by an electronic haze that floats around their heads. That haze is also an indicator of the thinker’s state of mind, from the blue-white of free-association to the fiery blazes that accompany The Preacher (David Oyelowo) in his every waking moment. There is no real way for the men to hide their thoughts, save for thinking very hard about something else, which will appear as a watery vision, though not many of them have progressed beyond a rudimentary skill at that. A lack of mastery over one’s audible thoughts is called “chaos” and is something to be mocked. Whereas not having any noise at all is to risk being called a woman.
It’s a tedious existence for the small colony of Pretisstown, particularly due to the fact that all the women were killed off by the indigenous species, called the Spackle. The settlers have devolved into a primitive frontier-style existence in the temperate climate, raising beets and being beholden to The Mayor (Mads Mikkelsen buried beneath of pile of red fur), who can not only control his chaos, but can also create thought manifestations indistinguishable from the real thing. Though he has a strapping son of his own (Nick Jonas at his most simian), The Mayor has taken a shine to Todd (Holland), the youngest person in the settlement, and although the least robust, the most advanced in manifesting his thoughts. Mocked by everyone else except Ben (Demián Bichir) and Cillian (Ken Sutter), the couple who took him in when his mother died, Todd spends most of his time wandering the woods with his faithful mutt, Manchee between beatings administered by The Preacher and other assorted Prentisstowners.
It’s upon returning from one of these ramblings that Todd discovers a strange intruder on his farm, and onewho has no noise. Startled to learn that this means that the intruder is a girl, he joins the hunt to bring her in, and, what with her being the first girl he’s ever seen since he was a baby, falls for her. Hard. So when she escapes from the Mayor, Todd hides her, suspecting that the reasons for bringing her back to town has something more sinister about it than the natural consequences in straight men of pent-up hormones after the long absence of female company.
In due course, Todd has discovered that the girl’s name is Viola, and that Prentisstown is not the only human settlement on New World as he had been led to believe. Also, that the second wave of settlers, for whom Viola was a scout, will be arriving shortly, causing consternation for the despotic Mayor, and an urgent need for Viola to find a transmitter to warn the wave what to expect.
Thus begins the odyssey of Todd and Viola, keeping one step ahead of the Mayor and his posse, and coming to terms with Todd’s frequently embarrassing fantasies about Viola. Of course they bond, but the cliché is mitigated by the innocent sweetness that Ridley and Holland display, bringing a spontaneous warmth to an otherwise very chilly exercise. The next town has an abiding, and legally binding, hatred for the Prentisstowners, and a mayor, Hildy (Cynthia Erivo), with actual empathy to go with the authority she wields. Yet another eye-opening experience for Todd.
The details are more interesting than the story. Todd and Viola’s bonding, for one, the way Hildy’s father dreams of baseball with full sound effects and swings of the bat, for another. The themes of familial tensions, jealousies, and betrayals are badly underwritten, leaving the confrontations, comeuppances, and reconciliations later in the story to lack the punch they require for a drama or emotional resonance. That an important plot point hinges on an advanced sort of USB port connection is also something of a letdown.
CHAOS WALKING fails to provoke more than a flicker of appeal, mired as it is with two-dimensional supporting characters and pacing that undercuts any hope of suspense. Even the white-water chase sequence offers the most inconsequential of riffles rather than rapids, and that is a pretty apt metaphor for the flick itself.