They call it the Noise. And most who carry it wish it’d shut up already.
It’s a byproduct of the New World—a planet colonized years before by settlers from Earth. Pierce the planet’s atmosphere, and suddenly every man’s every thought is broadcast to anyone within earshot; all his thoughts and feelings swirl around his head like a chromatic cloud. Sometimes, they even take shape and form—thoughts becoming, in some sense, visible and almost indistinguishable from reality.
Awkward? You bet. It might be even more awkward if, y’know, any women are within noise-shot. But in this corner of the New World, a place called Prentisstown, that’s not an issue. The settlement has no women: They were all killed years before—victims of the Spackle, the planet’s native inhabitants.
That’s what Todd has always been told, anyway, and he has no reason to doubt it. He’s Prentisstown’s youngest resident, a teen with only the most threadbare memories of his mother. And while his two adoptive dads care for him very much, Todd’s life among all these men, with their Noise swirling like batter in a blender, is far from easy. So Todd works on the family farm; spends time with the Mayor when he can; avoids Aaron, the strange preacher; and does his best to keep his own Noise bottled in.
I am Todd Hewitt, he thinks over and over, like a quieting religious rite. I am Todd Hewitt. If that’s the thought at the top of his mind, maybe he can hide his true thoughts: Who he’d like to punch in the face or what his dads can do with their chores or his sometimes crippling sense of despair in the face of Prentisstown’s day-to-day monotony.
I am Todd Hewitt.
But then, like a shooting star, something breaks up that monotony: A spaceship crashes not far from the farm. Todd doesn’t see the crash, but he does see a stranger in the woods. He forgets his chores and chases after the stranger and, after some effort, finds her.
Her. It’s a girl.
Todd has never seen a girl. Viola (the girl) knows this immediately from his Noise, of course: I’ve never seen a girl before, he broadcasts. But that’s not the only novelty Viola carries with her. She doesn’t have Noise. Her thoughts remain as silent as a snowfall.
Yes, it’s awkward to have all your thoughts and feelings out there for everyone to see. But imagine living in a world where that’s normal—and then running into a creature like Viola.
Enigmatic. Secret. How awkward would that be?
When the men of Prentisstown learn about the girl, their overall reaction is predictably vile. She’s not just a mystery, but to many, a threat. Viola’s in danger from the get-go. But Todd—even though Viola’s a complete enigma to him, too—is determined to protect and save her.
That brings with it a complication: Viola, seeing this New World is screwed up in some wildly new ways, wants to get word back to the rest of the colonists (who are still on their way, waiting word from Viola’s scout team), to turn around and go home. Thus, saving Viola means saying goodbye to her. And Todd doesn’t want to say goodbye: He’s already smitten. But if that’s what she wants, he’ll do what he can to help.
Todd’s dads, Ben and Cillian, do what they can to help their son and the girl, too—each showing a willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good. When Todd and Viola come across a settlement some distance away, they find good folk there, too—particularly that town’s mayor, Hildy—who are willing to stand up to a much more militarized force to protect the innocent.
You get the feeling that the New World’s settlers were a little like the Pilgrims of old: Both Prentisstown and the other settlement of Far Branch seem to have some religious attachment. Hildy, the mayor of Far Branch, says that her group was a church community that eventually forsook its weapons and machinery in favor of farming.
Prentisstown seems far less religious at this point, though. Its preacher, Aaron, lives apart from the core community and complains of living in exile. Todd wonders aloud why you even need a preacher, “Because nobody goes to church anymore.”
Aaron, the preacher, is a strange dude indeed. We don’t know exactly what religion he adheres to, but we do hear some biblical-tinged language from him, full of fire-and-brimstone pronouncements. He calls Viola an “angel sent forth from the heavens,” but considers her an angel determined to punish the people. He also considers the Noise not a curse, but a gift, and he encourages Todd and others not to hide it. He’s also pretty misogynistic: “You hide your Noise like a woman,” he tells the Mayor—using the term as a grave insult.
[Spoiler Warning] We learn that Mayor Prentiss and Aaron spearheaded something unthinkable: The wholesale slaughter of Prentisstown’s women. They argued, in part, that the reason women had no Noise was because they had no souls. But Aaron eventually seems to repent in a way. “I couldn’t tell the voice of God from the Noise,” he admits. “I am the sinner.”
The Noise, as mentioned, can manifest itself physically, and sometimes images of people—including long-dead people—can appear. This is not explicitly spiritual, of course, given the more naturalistic underpinnings of the Noise. But these folks can feel like ghosts. It’s suggested that Mayor Prentiss doesn’t just hide his Noise, but can use it almost like hypnosis.
Todd strips off his clothes before entering a lake. We see the man’s exposed backside from a distance, and a bit more of his flank up close. (Oddly, when he later takes a bath, he does so with all his clothes on.) We see him shirtless at other junctures, too.
In a turn that will shock no one, Todd has a thing for Viola. In one scene, he imagines kissing her tenderly—a moment that shocks the girl (because, of course, she can see his fantasy play out). He does his best to silence the Noise that makes his feelings known—thoughts of how pretty she is, or how much he’d like to kiss her—but to little avail. But while Viola clearly likes Todd and appreciates his help, she flat-out tells him that the kiss is not gonna happen.
Davy Prentiss, the Mayor’s son, has more lecherous designs on Viola. Tasked with guarding her, he approaches her and leers at her, carrying an air of suggestive menace without the scene taking things too far or in a more sensual, explicit direction.
It’s hard to quantify exactly what Todd’s two dads mean to each other, given the male exclusivity in Prentisstown. When one of them is dying, the other holds him tightly and affectionately. But it’s a scene that might be played out in much the same way in a cinematic World War II battlefield, so the film leaves the question open as to whether the two are a “couple.”
We do know that most of the men of Prentisstown are wildly misogynistic, egged on by the Mayor’s curious ability with the Noise.
Animal lovers, beware. A horse and his rider launch themselves off a cliff and tumble down a steep hillside: The rider suffers bumps and bruises, but the horse breaks his leg in the fall (we see the wound), and the rider ends up euthanizing the animal—off-camera—with a knife. A dog is purposefully drowned, and another horse might drown, too.
People suffer quite a bit as well. Several people are shot and die from their injuries. One is completely vaporized. Someone else is shot by a laser weapon in the shoulder, but lives. A few people burn to death, and we see their flaming bodies. Some space travelers are thrown wildly around a doomed spacecraft. A man is stabbed in the leg. Someone falls from a height, and another person almost does. The Noise conjures up a woman who apparently died from a bad blast to the gut. (The wound was fatal, but the Noise allows the woman to “live” and talk.)
Far Branch’s law indicates that any man who shows up from Prentisstown will “get the rope.” Todd fights with a tentacled creature (hoping it’ll become his and Viola’s dinner) along with a stray member of the Spackle, the planet’s native race. He nearly kills the humanoid creature before Viola pleads with him to stop and let him go. Viola fights with an assailant. A weapon goes off accidentally, leading to lots of holes in a building but no serious injuries. People are threatened.
The s-word is used an awful lot for a PG-13 movie targeted at teens: about 25 times, in fact. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “crap,” “d–n,” “h—” and six misuses of God’s name.
None, though a horse is apparently named Whiskey.
Todd tries to share a bit of food with Viola, telling her it’s “not bad at all.” The accompanying Noise image of him gagging, though, suggests the truth is less pleasant. We learn that Todd never learned how to read: Aaron had all the books in the community burnt.
You could say, without cracking a sardonic grin, that the making of Chaos Walking was more chaotic than Chaos Walking itself.
It didn’t start out that way. The film is based on a young-adult sci-fi series by Patrick Ness that pretty much won every British award it could qualify for. In 2016, the movie’s producers quickly snagged fresh-faced Tom Holland (who’d just made his first appearance as Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War) and Daisy Ridley (star of the record-obliterating Star Wars: The Force Awakens). Filming began in August and wrapped in November of 2017. So far so good, right? Lionsgate hoped it’d be the next big teen franchise—a new generation’s Hunger Games.
But when Lionsgate bigwigs saw the first cut of movie, which departs wildly from the book, they deemed it “unreleaseable.” In 2019, they dragged the cast back for another three weeks of reshoots, hoping to salvage the film.
Just in time for COVID-19 to hit, of course.
The result? Not worth the wait.
Despite some interesting elements and likable leads, Chaos Walking is a chaotic mess. Here men strip naked to swim in a lake but take baths with their clothes on; they can’t keep secrets unless it’s critical to the plot (in which case secrets can be easily kept for years). When Viola first sets foot on the planet’s surface, she immediately knows she wants to get away. I think many moviegoers might sympathize.
Moreover, this film feels more brutal, and sounds more profane than you would expect for a movie intended, essentially, for kids. After hearing our lead character use the s-word a half-dozen times in its first half-dozen minutes, I had to double-check the rating to see if it could possibly be rated PG-13. (Yup, it is.)
In the end, Lionsgate shepherded this “unreleaseable” film to a release date, and reshoots perhaps pushed it up a step above “unwatchable.”
But let’s be honest: It’s not a big step above.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.