‘Chaos Walking’ Turns Young Adult Novel Into a Sprinting Sci-Fi Western

In the world of “Chaos Walking” teenage angst goes into outer space. This science fiction thriller wears its themes on its sleeve, somehow combining teen insecurities with the topic of colonialism. It is based on the first book in the “Chaos Walking” series by author Patrick Ness, who also pens the screenplay. The world Ness creates may be quite a curiosity. The film itself is a combination of energetic directing by Doug Liman, who swings back and forth between down-to-earth stories and grandiose action pieces, and YA drama. It’s hard not to be entertained by the central notion of what it would be like if we could hear each other’s thoughts all the time. For Ness the experience of seeing his work come to the screen has been a drama onto itself. “It is 100% not a quick process to turn a book into a movie,” Ness told Entertainment Voice. “I come from a very small town, 40 miles south of Seattle and even getting a book published felt like a ridiculous dream. My philosophy is that real writers will write no matter what, so I kept writing anyway. And getting it made into a film never seems real.” “Chaos Walking” releases March 5 in select cities and we encourage readers to not risk their health or the health of others. 

The story is set in New World, a planet where humans from Earth landed many moons ago to try and settle. The planet has a strange side effect that only affects men, this being that their very thoughts can be heard aloud, in a purplish psychic cloud called “The Noise.” In the settlement of Prentisstown, Todd (Tom Holland), toils away as a beet-planter on a farm run by father Ben (Demián Bichir). Prentisstown is lorded over by Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen), who has convinced Todd he is the youngest man on the planet, thus very special. Mayor Prentiss also spread paranoia about the local natives, Spackle, who are deemed a threat. Mysteriously, there are no women in Prentisstown, because they were apparently slaughtered by the Spackles years ago. Or so that’s the story told to Todd. But their world will be rattled when a ship crashes in the forest carrying Viola (Daisy Ridley), who was part of a larger mission getting ready to continue settling New World. Todd is instantly smitten, especially because he’s never seen a girl before. But the Mayor won’t have it and he and his goons are soon chasing after Viola and Todd, who flee together into the wild. 

While much of “Chaos Walking” is full of recognizable YA features, like insecure teenage boys and scheming adults, its idea of floating thoughts gives it a fascinating angle. Alas, this is a PG-13 movie and so the thoughts we get to hear floating around from Todd’s head or anyone else’s, mostly consist of repetitive insecurities, observations or, in the case of a sleeping pioneer, the sounds of a baseball game. Nobody has naughty thoughts. Kudos for Ness and Liman for somehow molding this material into a movie. “The original idea, when I wrote it back in 2007, 2008, was the concept of information overload,” said Ness. “Social media was in its first big golden phase. We were starting to feel obliged to share every detail about our lives, and we in turn started listening to everyone else’s lives. There was this great, unprecedented wave of information on everybody. So I thought what if we had to share? What if there was no choice in the matter? The world has gotten so much noisier since then and we have learned how to use this technology in darker ways. It’s not saying the internet is bad, but we should still ponder the consequences, so we don’t get swallowed by it.”

New World itself doesn’t necessarily feel otherworldly, more like a sci-fi reimagining of early America. Pioneers sit around toiling the soil and the strange natives are out there, somewhere, apparently inhabiting lakes as dark beings. While other YA novels and movies like “The Hunger Games” imagine revolution and dystopias, “Chaos Walking” takes inspiration from the past. A religious fanatic even roams Prentisstown, preaching fire and brimstone. “I think if you’re a writer, or any kind of creative, the stories you tell will contain everything you care about,” said Ness. “There were definitely questions of colonialism in this. I read a lot about Australians and native Australians and the founding of the country. I kept asking myself if we went to space, would we do the same thing? Probably. And what would that look like? There were also issues of masculinity and manhood that I truly care about. I wonder how all those issues would collide if we colonized another planet.”

“From my writer’s soul I’ve always tried to embrace the idea that the book remains,” said Ness, “the book will always be there. It’s mine. That makes it less painful to let certain things go for the movie. It’s a 500-page book. Another way I see it is that an adaptation is a remix of a book. Remixes have new creative teams to make the story a little different. But it makes sense to me because if you approach it as a remix, then the spirit of the book remains but with the story jazzed up a bit. That bothered me less than maybe other authors have been bothered, I can’t speak for them.” Director Doug Liman is so versatile he can now include “Chaos Walking” in a list of work that includes “Swingers” and “Edge of Tomorrow.” He directs this adventure with a rugged feel even when the wardrobe threatens to ape Kevin Costner’s “The Postman.” 

Much of the film is on foot as Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley evade laser guns wielded by their pursuers and dine on the meat of a lake serpent (of the extraterrestrial variety). Coming off “Star Wars,” Ridley is phoning in her Viola, who is required to be the more advanced and tougher of the duo. Holland is playing against type, he’s naïve and nearly babyish, despite knowing how to wrestle monsters and start a fire. But they, along with Mikkelsen, embody the characters perfectly. “I talked to the actors a lot,” said Ness. “This was just the coolest cast. I was thrilled to be there every day. I can separate the book from it and I’m so happy with these actors playing these actors. Tom and Daisy are wonderful together. They have an approachability that is key to Todd and Viola. In my fiction I always try to invite the reader to ponder, ‘who would you be here?’ Madds is of course a great villain with that great face.”

For fans of Ness’s novels, “Chaos Walking” condenses the first adventure into a lively film. Although newcomers might be left with a few questions. Like why does New World seem so much like our world? For now Ness is waiting to see what the response is, which would determine if more movies will follow. “I hope fans of the books realize there are some plot changes and embrace that. The spirit of the book and relationships are there. I never want to prescribe what people should think. It is a movie about people faced with an unexpected environmental effect that changes their way of life. Some handle it badly, some handle it differently. In the end there’s this great idea of hope that we can keep trying. It’s what we’ve done in the pandemic. It’s been horrible but we’re still communicating and finding ways to make culture. We find new ways to get around our old ways of communicating. Even when faced with something really tough we can still crack it and be humans together.”

Chaos Walking” releases March 5 in select theaters.