Captive State is a science-fiction movie perfect for the current political climate. By which I mean it deals with revolution, resistance, insurrection, and classicism. While I didn’t love it, I couldn’t help but be charmed by Rupert Wyatt’s low budget mishmash of genres.
Wyatt and his co-writer Erica Beeney don’t seem to know which ideas they want to explore. They get lost in a sea of characters and labyrinthine espionage plots. The script is hardly subtle. I didn’t mind it though, if only because Wyatt makes it clear from the start he has no interest in subtlety. Sometimes honesty goes a long way in our forgiveness of a film’s flaws.
The plot reminded me of an old Fritz Lang movie Hangmen Also Die!. In that movie, a group of Prague citizens plot and carry out the assassination of the nazi Reinhard Heydrich, the number two man of the SS. Captive State substitutes nazis for aliens. The aliens have invaded earth and taken over our government and are known as the Legislators. Fascist colonialism in the guise of an alien invasion– classic sci-fi.
Captive State has a sprawling cast of characters. It works best when the script focuses on the machinations of the underground resistance rather than the travails of a singular character, Gabriel (Ashton Sanders). Staying with Gabriel, in the beginning, allows us to explore the world through his eyes. It’s just what we see is considerably more interesting than Gabriel himself.
Gabriel’s older brother Rafe (Jonathan Majors) is a hero of the resistance. He and others died in an attempt to bomb a Closed area, a term used to designate where the Legislators live underground. The difference between Captive State and Hangmen Also Die!, besides aliens, is that the latter had the assassination attempt at the beginning and the rest of the movie is the fallout. Captive State, however, starts out with a prologue telling us what led to the beginning of the movie.
The beginning is a slog. We are treated to exposition while also trying to get a feel for the new world; or at least new Chicago. Except the prologue is filled with events which would have made a great movie. The history we’re told at the start is more interesting than the present we’re given.
Aside from wake up go to work, hustle some money, and argue with his close friend Jurgis (Machine Gun Kelly), Gabriel has little to do as a character. The exposition is helpful in how we interpret and understand the rest of the movie. But helpful and interesting are two vastly different descriptors. While the first act is helpful, it is hardly worth the drudge.
We do learn that every human has a bug implanted in them so as to be tracked both by the human police and the Legislators. By bug, I mean a literal bug. In one of the film’s clever twists, the homing device is a literal subspecies of alien life form. An idea that is wonderfully squeamish in both thought and execution. At one point while Gabriel is on the run he stumbles upon a lair of what appears to be a full grown family of the species.
Too many science fiction movies never seem to appreciate the true anxiety people would feel when coming face to face with an alien life form. Especially if said life form was leading a shadow government and responsible for the death and enslavement of millions of people. Wyatt utilizes Rob Simonsen’s score, thumping electronica with a heavy base, to build a sense of dread. Cliche, yes but also effective.
Eventually, the script drifts away from Gabriel to focus on Rafe. Rafe’s death is mentioned in passing while murals of him decorate the side of buildings. Whenever you have a character who is lionized for his sacrifices and no one talks about them directly but instead whispers their names and build monuments, we can safely assume that character will appear before the third act.
Rafe appears at the end of the first act and the movie is better for it.
Sanders is a fine presence but he seems adrift for most of the movie. He has less of a character and more of an outline of an idea for a character. Yet when Sanders shares a scene with Majors the movie starts to come alive.
Whether or not you knew Major’s Rafe was dead or not is beside the point. The scene plays not as a revelation for us but as a revelation for Gabriel. Major and Sanders find the perfect emotional beats as they reunite only for Gabriel to realize this may be the last time they ever see each other again.
Both Rafe and Gabriel are being hunted by Detective William Mulligan (John Goodman). The cops are now, as they usually are, the authoritative arm of the Legislators. Their job is to root out those who would do harm to the Legislators. William is also the ex-partner of Rafe and Gabriel’s father.
The parallel stories of Rafe and Gabriel intertwine with William as we witness the planning and preparation for the attack and all the fallout stemming from it. All of which are infinitely more fascinating and intriguing than the opening act would lead you to believe. We become engrossed both because of the “mystery” about the Legislators and because we so rarely see revolutions carried out on film.
Goodman is one of the best character actors working today. His presence always brings with it a wry weariness. His Mulligan is a man torn between his cynicism about the new world and his love of Jane Doe (Vera Farmiga), a prostitute. Wyatt and Breen hint to the point of shouting that their relationship is more than it seems. Again, hardly subtle, but the resolution was no less satisfying.
Wyatt utilizes Chicago as a special effects extravaganza all it’s own. With its perpetually cloudy skies and cramped neighborhoods, Captive State exudes a dour mood that is never nihilistic so much as fatalistic. Detective Mulligan knows none of this will end well but what else can he do? Gabriel is helpless in the face of a world whose power and machinations are far outside his control.
Alex Disenhof frames the scenes of Captive State with shadows and overcast skies. The threat of a thunderstorm, much like an act of political violence, is never far away. Disenhof shrouds the Legislators, as mentioned before, in darkness. We get a sense rather than a look. By doing this he contributes to the overall feeling of dread that permeates much of the film. In many ways, he has shot Captive State less like a science fiction movie and more like a noir movie-filled with dark alleyways and cramped dingy apartments.
Captive State is not a movie for those who tire of politics in their movies. Though I would hasten to add such people would do well to avoid the cinema altogether. For everyone else, I recommend Captive State. You might be surprised by how much you enjoy this scrappy political thriller of a science fiction noir. I know I was.