by Jordan King
“The Noise is a man’s thoughts unfiltered, and without a filter a man is just chaos walking.” These are the words that open Doug Liman’s Chaos Walking, at one point deemed an unreleasable adaptation of the first book in Patrick Ness’ seminal YA trilogy of the same name. These are the words that act as the audience’s gateway into a dystopian sci-fi adventure set 300 years in the future on a planet known as New World, where a male-only colony of settlers live with ‘the Noise’, an affliction which opens their innermost thoughts up for all to see and hear.
In the world of Chaos Walking, visualised here to Liman’s credit very much as Ness wrote it – an old frontier style township injected with glimpses of bleepity-bloopity tech – we are initially led to believe that the womenfolk were murdered on arrival in New World by the Spackle, the planet’s humanoid natives. Half of the men survived a civil war with this race, who we see in Liman’s film only once in a form best described as ‘microwaved-mannequin’, and from those who remained one David Prentiss – a fur-coated cult-leader like Mads Mikkelsen – took up the role of Mayor of the newly christened Prentisstown.
As Prentiss rules with an iron fist, his Noise repeatedly incanting ‘I am the circle and the circle is me’ in a call-and-response to ensure his acolytes’ allegiance, his runtish son Davy (Nick Jonas) tries to win his father’s approval by bullying the locals whilst creepy preacher Aaron (David Oyelowo) quietly but fiercely asserts faith in a higher power than the Mayor.
When teenager Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland) – who handily repeats his name innumerable times throughout the film to suppress his Noise – and his faithful pup Manchee come across a crashed ship harbouring a girl, Viola (Daisy Ridley), the pair are forced to question everything they’ve ever known as they try to flee Prentiss and his cavalry in an attempt to keep Viola safe and warn her inbound fellow colonists of what awaits on New World.
The bones of the plot of Chaos Walking, as with Ness’ novels, is nothing extraordinary. Two runaway teens from opposite sides of the tracks realising the world around them is a lie is not new ground, especially in a world very much au fait with The Maze Runner, The Hunger Games, and other such tales of rebellion.
What makes the Chaos Walking trilogy so profound and compelling is precisely what renders Liman’s film at times genuinely infuriating to watch – the Noise. As a plot device, the horrific idea of men’s thoughts being unleashed in an unending stream of consciousness for all to hear is distinctly bookish.
Ness’ playing with readers’ internal narration of the written word made for a deliberately unsettling experience. It also made for a frequently profound one. Being able to occupy a characters’ headspace in first person narration is immersive, but to feel their thoughts break out from beneath what they are willing to share peeled back yet another layer of fictitious artifice to give readers something incredibly raw and oftentimes moving.
On screen, the Noise is a different beast. Visualised as part comic-book speech bubble, part blueish-purple sporous wisp, the look of the Noise – a phenomena that works on the page precisely because of its lack of tangible form – is intriguing enough to ensnare audience’s interest. The simplicity of the gimmick gives the film in early scenes some much-needed colour against an otherwise muted cinematographic palette, and the imposition of premonitory visualisations of the characters’ Noise – a feature absent in the books – is at least an attempt to do something that fits the filmic form (it clutters up the frame but kudos for the thought).
Aurally however, the echoed soundbytes, conjured from a screenplay that devolves Ness’ philosophic exploration of masculinity and morality into a mildly horny version of Dug from Up, are frankly intolerable. It feels like that bit in Deathly Hallows Part 2 where Voldemort gets in the pupils’ heads, combined with the floobly-woobly shenanigans of Aquaman, and amplified to an iraciating degree by its presence often in several characters at once. Where the written word made poetry of the Noise, the spoken makes sheer torture.
Whilst Holland and Ridley, playing Todd and Viola several years older than their book counterparts, perform the given material with admirable earnestness, Christopher Ford’s screenplay (co-written but surely only in a supervisory capacity by Ness) makes it hard to form an emotional connection with our leads.
Both Todd and Viola are young adults navigating the loss of their parents and unearthing Earth-shattering revelations about who they are and what has led their people to this point in history, but their burgeoning friendship (romance? Hardly here, but definitely in the source material) is clouded by tame intrusive thoughts on Todd’s part and a near-total lack of depth written into Viola’s.
The closest approximation to the spirit of the source and excitement in the film comes in the form of Mikkelsen’s Mayor and Oyelowo’s fire-and-brimstone preacher. The great Dane’s silver tongue slips into a Southern drawl deliciously as he embodies the epitome of enabled toxic masculinity, whilst Brit Oyelowo finds a righteous fury that fizzes with Ezekial 25:17 energy and injects palpable threat into the film’s several average action setpieces.
Whilst the fact that Chaos Walking has finally made its way into the world is admirable, everything that made the books so captivating and profound is absent here. The handling of the characters smacks of artistic abandonment after years mired in production hell, whilst the narrative diverges from the source in all of the worst possible ways, breaking the story wheel with no clear plan for its reinvention.
By the time the film lumbers to its haphazard, ‘tie it all up because we might not get a sequel’ conclusion, it is all chaos, barely walking. I highly recommend checking out the books. I cannot in good faith recommend the film. If only Kaufman had stuck around…
Chaos Walking is out on VOD now!