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The space Western ‘Chaos Walking’ explores gender dynamics – amid a lot of noise

UPDATED: Thu., March 4, 2021

By Michael O’Sullivan Washington Post

The film “Chaos Walking” is, in some respects, what you might call a space Western: It opens in a small community of settlers – subsistence farmers, from the look of things – who carry long guns and wear pelts like 19th century fur trappers. There’s even a character called Preacher (David Oyelowo) and a horse named Whiskey.

But these cliched trappings are set in a dystopian future, on a distant, Earthlike planet some 6o years’ journey from our own. The natives (called Spackle, for what can only be misguided reasons) have been at war with the colonists for years, both of whom appear to coexist in an uneasy truce.

This is the slightly silly cowboys-and-Indians setting that situates the movie, a sci-fi oater based on the first book of a YA trilogy by Patrick Ness, who co-wrote the screenplay with Christopher Ford. Although the screen version, directed by Doug Liman (“Edge of Tomorrow”) departs in some ways from the book, it also centers on Todd (Tom Holland), a young man whose journey will entail uncovering dark secrets about the past.

Although not quite 13 years old in the first book, “The Knife of Never Letting Go,” the character’s film counterpart is several years older here. Living in an all-male community named Prentisstown after the mayor (Mads Mikkelsen), Todd has been taught that the women were all killed by the Spackle. The remaining men, for their part, suffer from something called Noise: the general inability to keep one’s thoughts private, rendered here as a kind of lavender-hued, smokelike aura – part auditory, part visual hallucination – that emanates from the head and represents the chatter many of us here in the Old World already find difficult to silence.

Mayor Prentiss is very good at hiding his Noise. Preacher says it makes him look like a woman. (Women, before they disappeared, were immune to the Noise, hence unknowable and mysterious. Men are – ahem – more predictable.) “I take that as a compliment,” Prentiss replies. Todd, like some others, can use his Noise to create illusions: a snake, for instance, that isn’t really there. Although many understandably find the Noise, well, annoying, Preacher calls it a gift: one of truth. And yet the gift can be manipulated to lie, a feature that will figure prominently more than once.

The plot swings into action when Viola (Daisy Ridley), a scout from Earth, crash-lands in the woods near Prentisstown, leading its residents to go ape. Todd, who is too young to have ever seen a girl or woman, other than his mother, behaves as you might expect, babbling like an idiot about Viola’s pretty “yellow hair” and wondering aloud, as with all his thoughts, about whether she’ll kiss him. Prentiss wants to use Viola to harness the power of her mothership, hovering in orbit, to destroy the Spackle.

A chase ensues.

There are some very interesting ideas percolating here: about gender dynamics, for instance, and colonial hegemony. (Todd calls the Spackle aliens; Viola points out that they were there first, and it’s Man who is the interloper.) One not-so-interesting idea: In the book, Todd’s dog, Manchee, is also afflicted with the Noise. The movie is better off without another talking-dog trope.

But more often than not, these good ideas get drowned out by, for lack of a better word, the film’s extraneous Noise: the Spackle, the queasy sexual objectification, the weird “Tombstone”-in-Alpha-Centauri aesthetic. (The horses were brought frozen, in cryochambers, we learn late in the film.) Too frequently and too loudly, the sci-fi bells and whistles of “Chaos Walking” overwhelm its quieter, more engrossing elements, making it difficult to hear what the film really seems to be saying.

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