Very spoilery about the film (I haven’t read the book!) If you just want the ending, scroll down past the “orange trousers” photo… My review is here.
The title is from an unnamed New World settler: “The Noise is a man’s thoughts, unfiltered, and without a filter, man is just chaos walking”.
There are four themes in Chaos Walking, which is set in 2257. The two main ones are colonisation, and life in an always-on, information heavy world. Also explored, though in less depth, are the journey to adulthood, and (albeit mostly in retrospect) the role of women.
The settlers’ colonisation of New World is almost too blunt to be a metaphor. New World has been colonised by a group of people who are effectively invaders, overwhelming the Spackle, a humanoid race. The mayor of Prentisstown then scapegoats the Spackle, now almost eradicated as a species, as responsible for the slaughter of the women in the town. In reality it was the town’s men who murdered them all, furious that they were unaffected by whatever caused The Noise, and could still keep their secrets from the men.
(Todd’s mother died during the slaughter; his father died before then. After his mother’s death, Ben and Cillian brought him up, planning a way to save him from Prentisstown when he was old enough.)
The Noise created a new but just as dangerous situation for women, who have traditionally been chided for speaking too much about trivialities, unable to separate the important from the banal. Unaffected by The Noise, they now got to keep their secrets in the silence, while around them the real thoughts of men, trivial or important, spilled out.
The preacher Aaron has always seen The Noise as the gift of truth, but talks darkly of judgement. His noise looks different to the others’: fiery flames around his head, while they are surrounded by purple and green mists. Noise can lead people to where you are; one of Viola’s strengths is that Prentiss can’t track her.
This retelling of the colonisation of the new world is made interesting because those settlers have – partly as a deliberate choice and partly because the promised second wave of settlers never landed – built a life that partially harks back to those times, but with twists.
The residents of Farbranch, the settlement nearest to Prentisstown, live a back-to-basics simple life, having let technology rust away; maybe for them the only way to cope is to reduce the rest of life to give the noise room to dissipate. They are led by Hildy, a Black woman, who has to constantly manage any dissent among her unprotected residents.
Prentisstown itself is an odd mixture of cult (“I am the circle and the circle is me,” they chant), a theme park Wild West, and some leftover modern bits and bobs. Ben and Cillian even have an old motorbike hidden away, which Viola uses to escape on after she’s been hiding out in the men’s barn.
Elsewhere on the planet the old supports for a monorail are still visible; the explorers’ grand plans for the planet discarded as they went into retreat.
The Noise itself represents our online world, which for younger people particularly is inescapable. They’ve grown up with it entwined around them like a vine, sometimes flowering and sometimes poisonous. On the internet, as in these men’s heads, the importance, validity or truth of information often bears no relation to the “noise” around it on social media and online. On New World, Todd has never known anything different, though he’s savvier than most at limiting how much his thoughts can be read by those around him, drowning out what he doesn’t want people to know with more Noise. (To continue the metaphor, the most successful people on New World are those who can push important but dangerous information down the Search results…) The repetition Todd uses to block the noise at times – “I’m Todd Hewitt” – is also about identity, trying to hold onto your sense of self in the face of the blur of the online world which should be freeing but ultimately tends to demand conformity.
Todd’s escape from Prentisstown in pursuit of Viola, and then their trek to the settlement of Farbranch, is when he grows up. He learns the truth about his origins, the reality of the terrible actions of the men in his town, and about life “outside”. They also come face to face with a Spackle, though Viola realises it is not the danger Todd has been told it is.
Once in Farbranch Viola reads Todd’s mum’s journal to him (he can’t read) and he discovers the Prentisstown men murdered all the women there. But Prentiss and his thugs attack the town, while Viola and Todd escape once more.
Todd, Viola and Manchee take a boat through the swirling river rapids. The Preacher comes after them through the water, eventually catching Manchee and killing him at a distance in front of Todd.
The two teenagers find the original spaceship the first settlers arrived on, massive and mostly buried in the earth. Viola wants to use its broken transmitter to contact the mothership which will soon be landing, which means Todd has to climb to the top to fix it, dangling from on high. The preacher appears inside the ship and attacks Viola. “I showed those women no mercy,” he tells her. “I couldn’t tell the voice of God from the noise.” He wants to be purified, and she sets him on fire; he staggers off to die.
Outside the ship, Prentiss holds Ben as a hostage, threatening him if Todd doesn’t come out. Todd blocks the Noise and won’t tell Prentiss where Viola is. Prentiss shoots Ben, who manages to still slip Todd a knife. Todd fights Prentiss though they then both see the signal from the ship go up into the sky. Todd summons the image of his dead mother, and Prentiss tells Todd he got the men to kill the women because the women were seeing what he really was. As Todd lies on the edge, about to fall back into the ship, images of all the murdered women appear, calling Prentiss a coward. Viola then appears and pushes Prentiss off the edge into the bowels of the ship below.
The giant spaceship appears in the sky, then we see Todd waking up on board days later. Viola is there – she has started producing her own “Noise”. Outside, they can see the new colonists working on the land.
Read my review and watch the trailer. Chaos Walking is available on digital platforms in the UK from 2 April. It was released in the US in March: