The pleasures found in engaging with dystopian narratives have to do with a certain distance. While examining contemporary tendencies carried out to their intensely unpleasant conclusions, these fictions are safely removed. They give the morbidly curious various scenarios while also reassuring us that our current society, while seemingly beyond repair, could be far more worse. Author Patrick Ness took the pearl-clutching idea of humanity overloaded with information, added a dash of gender politics, and crafted the Chaos Walking trilogy, which, after extensive delays and various creative dance partners, has finally been birthed by Ness (with co-writer Christopher Ford) and director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow). The result is an entertaining if uneven cocktail of classic YA adventure tales with cautionary overtones. Call it dystopian pop.
On a planet unremarkably called New World, the year is AD2257, and amid all the lush flora and fauna is a small colony called Prentisstown. The human founders of the planet quickly discovered a couple of things about New World that complicated their seemingly idyllic expansion plan. The first is that the planet already had a race of natives, the Spackle, who were less than thrilled by their new neighbors. The second is that every man on New World is afflicted by the Noise, an unfiltered display of every thought conceived for all to witness, the inner world of the mind outwardly exposed. Both heard and seen, (the physical manifestation itself a lingering aura with a shifting, mood-ring color palette), the cognitive life of every man adds to a collective chorus of dissonance. One thing, though: Women are not affected by the Noise, a closed book to the men’s unceasing ego monologues. And then the Spackle attack, slaughtering all the women in the colony.
Born and raised in this society is a young man named Todd Hewitt (Holland), living on a farm with his two fathers. An adept at controlling his own Noise, he’s not as good as the town’s leader, Mayor Prentiss (Mikkelsen, sporting an amazing fur coat), who not only can manage his own Noise, but holds sway over his community by using it to tame them. And then there is the preacher, Aaron (Oyelowo), a religious fanatic who sees the Noise as an aspect of the Divine. Into this drops Viola (Ridley), the lone survivor of a scouting ship crash, the vanguard of a second wave of colonists arriving imminently. Can she warn them that New World holds some deadly surprises for them? Will Todd stop apologizing to Viola for his wayward thoughts on interacting with a woman for the first time while he aids her in her quest? Will fickle fate allow Todd’s faithful dog Manchee to survive until end credits?
Chaos Walking has some things going for it, notably the ramifications of the Noise, and Todd and Viola’s uncovering of the secrets of Prentisstown and New World. The aesthetic here is the now easily identifiable pioneer-futurist chic, and the film, once the cinematic engine starts humming, is basically a Western, as the Mayor and his posse chase the duo through the wilderness. Liman keeps the pace from flagging, and the world-building exposition (so often laborious in these films) is clipped and painted with broad strokes. But aspects of the story never reach their full potential. Aaron, the increasingly unhinged preacher who has his own agenda for capturing Viola, offers tantalizing hints into how religious fervor, deception, and guilt mark one’s soul, but his arc fizzles into just being another bad guy. Similarly, the primal fear of femininity that alternatively gives the women power and makes them incredibly dangerous to men could have been explored with a bit more nuance. As it stands though, Chaos Walking is, as with any pop confection, catchy and has a solid beat, it’s just a shame that this tune is all too familiar.
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