“I don’t know who I’m rooting for!” and “who is the protagonist?” are notes a screenwriting professor gives when handing you a C- grade. (I don’t advise responding with “why aren’t you selling scripts instead of working as adjunct faculty?” unless you want that C- to turn into an F.) Guidelines like these exist for a reason; if your movie doesn’t conform to certain conventions, its subversive agenda is likely to undercut its entertainment value. Your movie usually ends up interesting instead of good.
I’m telling you this because sometimes a filmmaker rolls the dice on rule-breaking and ends up with boxcars. Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt and co-writer Erica Beeney have done just that with Captive State, a political treatise about alien occupation that feels like the type of underground, anti-authoritarian movie the Wachowskis saw and, when mixed with their love of martial arts and cyberpunk, begat The Matrix.
Captive State isn’t just a burst of youthful rage; it’s also a sly jigsaw puzzle with an aha! final shot worthy of the recent movie version of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Yes, there are stretches in this movie where you may feel completely unmoored, like when the main character just kinda disappears for 20 minutes. But have faith in the master plan. Your act of doing so will, in a weird way, mirror that of the characters.
Ashton Sanders (Moonlight) stars as Gabriel, a young man coming of age in a colder, grayer Chicago nine years after “first contact” with a powerful alien race known as the Legislators. The first scene of the movie plays out that historic day, showing the futile escape attempt made by Gabriel, his older brother Rafe (Jonathan Majors), and their parents. The (truly) terrifying aliens with pointy protrusions and weird bone structure pull out their weapons and — FWOOP — turn the parents into blood mist.
Though I try to maintain an air of professionalism at the movies, I emitted a legitimate “holy shit.”
The info-dump prologue goes quick. First contact led to world unity (good), then rampant economic turmoil, the swift erosion of civil liberties, and an unprecedented economic divide (bad). A collaborationist class working with the Legislators built “closed zones,” and, for wealth and privileges, aided the aliens in the wide-scale slurping up of our natural resources. Resistance groups were ostensibly wiped out (the Wicker Park neighborhood was a stronghold, but has been flattened), yet rumors of an insurgency persist.
Rafe is a martyr to this cause, and Gabriel is leaning toward joining the cause. For now, though, he works in a collaborationist data upload/deletion center, where he strips files from confiscated phones and then destroys them. The implication is that he got the sweet gig through Mulligan (John Goodman), a rumpled suit of a detective, galumphing his way through life and trying to keep his head above water. Mulligan was Gabriel’s father’s old partner, and seems kind, but he’s also working to chase down and snuff out all final embers of the insurgency.
The disconnect is fascinating. Every moviegoing bone in our body wants to like the weary cop, especially when he’s played by John Goodman. But his end goal seems to be to roll over for these spiky alien bastards that killed nice Gabriel’s parents and are actively sending the planet to its doom. How can both sides of this struggle seem right?
The conflict is something you’ve got to see through on your own, while Captive State asks us to puzzle over other ethical dilemmas: Should we actively root for a terrorist cell? A set-piece with a suicide bombing at a rally at Soldier Field sure seems that way. Less morally fraught is simply grooving on how a band of, let’s call them “freedom fighters,” communicates in a pre-networked environment. While the State has access to all the technology of today (plus surgically implanted trackers that move around in your throat, ew gross), our guys are using classified ads in the (print!) newspaper, playing coded songs over pirate radio, and using pay phones. Life, and the suppressed political underclasses, find a way.
Visually, Rupert Wyatt isn’t afraid to challenge his audience. This movie is ugly. Intentionally so. There’s nightmarish and uncomfortable-but-dazzling (Dark City comes to mind), and then there’s “ugh, I need a vacation.” The washed-out, dismal gray palette is what the the story needs, but it makes for an uncomfortable sit. While the aliens and ships aren’t hidden, they aren’t fetishized, either. We catch glimpses during action; a glance on the run. It adds to the terror.
One leaves Captive State agog at its whiz-bang ending, but it wouldn’t mean as much if the film weren’t such a rich ethical pretzel. It’s fundamentally xenophobic, something of an anti-Arrival. But while it suggests that alien visitors will only bring doom, it offers hope that here on Earth, there might still be enough humanity to save us.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer and member of the New York Film Critics Circle. His work can be read in The Guardian, New York Daily News, Vanity Fair, Thrillist, and elsewhere.