Chaos Walking is Good, Actually (Part 2)

A Thematically Rich World

by Breanna Beers

The more I think about this movie, the more I like it.

Yes, in hindsight, some of the structural flaws that plagued this movie become increasingly apparent. My editor’s eye is not blinded by my adoration for Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley’s compelling dynamic. However, the more I ruminate on this film, the more I find myself thinking about the larger themes of the script. 

Given its premise, this movie is less about gender than I thought it would be, but I don’t actually mind that they didn’t go that direction. Rather than constructing a movie around the idea of gender itself, gender is simply one axis along which the film develops its core themes of acceptance, shame, and power.

The noise sets up an additional divide between men and women that shifts their power dynamic. At first, I was expecting the noise to be a superpower of sorts, particularly following the Preacher’s fiery doomsday threats, Todd’s obvious lack of control, and Mayor Prentiss’ powerful manipulation. When Viola arrives, it appears that the men have all the power. But as time goes on, it becomes obvious that Viola’s silence is the real superpower and that the men’s aggression toward her flows out of fear of the vulnerability she exposes in them.

This noise creates a gender dynamic where men are more vulnerable than women. In Prentisstown, the men take destructive, violent action against the women, whereas in Farbranch, they live side-by-side while acknowledging the tension it creates. (I discussed how these two models contrast with Todd and Viola’s personal relationship in part 1.)

Gender is the primary lens through which this movie examines how the majority deal with those who are different from them, but it is not the only one. “Chaos Walking” demonstrates that those in power often feel the most vulnerable, since anything that disrupts the status quo constitutes a risk to their power. Immediately upon Viola’s arrival, the mayor sees her as a threat to his rule, his son sees her as an opportunity to prove himself, and the preacher sees her as an object of hate—not only because she is a woman but because she comes from outside the colony. Similarly, Farbranch has to assess how they’ll handle Prentisstown refugees and attackers. Perhaps most significantly, the Spackle are alternately cast as villain, scapegoat, and victim.

Even Todd has to grapple with clearly defining “us” vs. “them.” When Viola points out that she and Todd are the aliens to this planet, not the Spackle, he shuts her down: “They killed my mother. So, yeah, they’re the aliens.” Similarly, Todd assumes Viola’s ship will take her away and leave him behind, because that’s how just about everything else in his life has gone. Instead, they ultimately bring him in as part of their new settlement. 

However, this theme of judging what is new or different as inherently threatening is uniquely modulated by the careful tone the film takes towards its villains. The mayor is cold and inscrutable where the Preacher is all hot anger, but both are initially cast as believably motivated but fairly uncomplicated adversaries. Yet as the mysteries of this world are unravelled, the deep shame both these characters carry is revealed. For the Preacher, it produces self-hatred that lashes out at others; for the mayor, it manifests as fear that leads to a desperate need to tightly control both himself and others. 

Many of the problems with this movie are related to its villains. The points where we cut away from Todd and Viola are often the weakest scenes, where the numerous reshoots this movie went through are most evident. Prentiss and the Preacher should have been a single character from the outset, and the mayor’s son would almost certainly have been cut out completely if he wasn’t played by Nick Jonas. 

Yet from a thematic perspective, some of the illogic of these characters’ actions might be part of the point. For instance, the Preacher’s death scene is extremely weird and still doesn’t make total sense. However, the motivation questions—Why does it matter that she is the one to kill him? Why has he put himself through all this rather than ending it himself? Why continue doing worse things when the shame of what he’s already done is destroying him?—lead to powerful conclusions: because sometimes shame makes you illogical; sometimes self-hatred makes you do hateful things.

This is not an optimistic moral, but the villains here aren’t meant to be sympathetic. Their motivations don’t make their actions any less evil; they simply reveal how destructive acts so often lead to more destruction. 

What makes this interesting is that shame drives not only our villains but Todd as well, at least toward the beginning of the film. He hates his life and hates himself; his deepest desire is for approval and acceptance. However, he ultimately redirects that into positive action rather than further destruction, which feeds into the subtle undercurrent of individualism the movie reinforces through the interplay of personal identity and group identity. 

While the mayor and the townsfolk repeat the refrain “I am the circle and the circle is me” as a way of controlling their noise (and as a way for the mayor to control them), Todd repeats, “I am Todd Hewett. I am Todd Hewett.” The mayor’s son bears the same name as his father, David Prentiss, Jr., reflecting how he’s expected to conform to his father’s expectations rather than carve his own path. The reason the women of Prentisstown died is because of group identity—because a group of men started thinking of themselves as “men” rather than as individual people or members of the town. When Todd learns how the leaders of his colony lied and murdered to solidify their power, he is forced to redefine his own identity apart from them. The tension between group identity and personal identity is inevitable in a society where individual thought is always visible and therefore always putting you at risk. 

There are reasons “Chaos Walking” is rated as low as it is. Director Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity,” “Edge of Tomorrow”) landed Holland and Ridley in 2016, started and finished shooting in 2017, and was set to release the film in 2019. But when the top brass at Lionsgate deemed the first cut “unreleasable,” the movie was rushed into rewrites and reshoots, forced to work around the tight schedule of its stars, and the release date was pushed back to 2020. And we all know what happened in 2020. 

The production challenges show in the final product, but they didn’t ruin the story for me. Yes, there were numerous setups that never paid off: Todd’s rivalry with the mayor’s son, the concept of “the circle,” the role of the Spackle. Yet the reality is that what was cut seems to have been cut for good reasons. I didn’t need an explanation of the circle or a showdown between Todd and Prentiss Jr. In fact, those things would have lessened the impact of this movie. In the spotlight, they would have been distractions; in the background, they fill out this world.

Part of why this movie feels so developed is that it doesn’t over-explain: there’s no overwrought scene of Todd grappling with the fact that Ben had lied to him about how his mother died or dramatic hero moment for the innocent aliens. We’re never told why some people can control their noise better than others or why the settlers brought horses to a new planet instead of mechanical rovers. Instead, these are accepted facts of the way this world is, interacting with the story without being integral to it. I’m okay with my characters living in a world that doesn’t completely revolve around them.

These “missing” payoffs would be more of a problem if there wasn’t so much in this movie that did pay off. The emotional core of this movie is strong and satisfying. The characters have more of their lives to live, but their arcs in this story are finished.

 I’m sure this meant cutting huge swaths of the source material, but overall, I think the translation of an entire trilogy to a single movie is accomplished effectively in a cohesive story set in a compelling world. I haven’t read the book, though I want to; it’s been on my list for a long time. It’s obvious that this movie doesn’t contain everything Ness’s novel had to offer, but that said, I’d rather have a movie that zeroes in on a few key ideas than one that spreads itself too thin to tell a coherent story.

Of course, I also just loved the setting of this movie for its own sake. The world feels complete and imminent and real despite being just over a century and a few years’ space travel away from our own. The woods feel tall but not rich, with minimal undergrowth and no lower branches on the trees, giving them an otherworldly quality that contributes to the atmosphere. The costumes are quirky without being distracting, and the cinematography and score are both effective. More than anything, though, this movie has heart. 

“Chaos Walking” is complete without being complicated, funny without being dumb, intelligent without being pretentious, insightful without being preachy, emotionally resonant without being trite, and for me at least, unforgettable. There’s not too many movies that stick with me like this one did. 

Breanna Beers is a senior Molecular Biology major and the Editor-in-Chief of Cedars. She loves exercising curiosity, hiking new trails, and citrus tea.

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