For most of Captive State, Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt’s new dystopian sci-fi thriller, the audience’s allegiances are split. By simple storytelling inertia, Mulligan (John Goodman) has our sympathies. Aside from just, you know, being John Goodman, he’s a detective busting his hump to keep the peace and quell a group of violent insurgents. However, the insurgents are fighting for humankind’s freedom. Captive State puts the audience in a precarious position — aren’t we supposed to be rooting for them? — but a wallop of an ending grounds the conflict in a poignant way.
[Ed. note: this post contains major spoilers for the end of Captive State]
We’ve seen Goodman do a lot of things in movies, but we’ve never seen him zoom miles deep beneath the Earth’s core to meet with occupying alien forces, become submerged in some kind of weird goo, then blow himself up in a big victorious flash. It’s a striking image (especially with the accompanying thrumming music) and leads to one of the better “I knew it!!” film moments in some time.
By the end of the movie, we discover is that Mulligan is working the long con. Think of the ending of Miller’s Crossing or, perhaps even more accurately, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. By planting evidence, and with the sacrifice of his friend (played by Vera Farmiga), he positions himself as the ultimate true believer. By “exposing” Chief Igoe (Kevin Dunn) he gets selected to be the police liaison with the Legislatures in the Closed Zone. And that’s when he can take them out with a suicide bomb.
At the same time, the rest of the cell has dispersed to other major cities to spread the fight. Young Gabriel (Ashton Sanders), watching the video card Mulligan left him, discovers that his dead parents and Mulligan and Farmiga were all pals (IPA-drinking normies!) before the hellscape that came with first contact nine years ago.
Captive State is, if nothing else, and unusual film, and we had the good fortune to speak with its director and co-writer Rupert Wyatt about putting this shocker of an ending together.
Polygon: Did you write this with the image of exploding Goodman first and work backward?
Rupert Wyatt: My co-writer Erica Beeney and I always had the intention of revealing Mulligan as the real Trojan horse. How we executed that in the final frames of the film was an open discussion. Did we want to make it explicit, or just infer it? Should audiences leave wondering “ok, he’s in the Closed Zone, what will happen next?”
But while making the film we decided that we needed to understand the full impact. With that came the shocking end moment, and that’s where the real power of the film lies.
For everything up until that point, you are following characters that you really don’t know too well. We use shorthand, and we get to know them through action and deed, not backstory. This is very interesting for me as a storyteller. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows does it brilliantly. And you could call that a very dry piece of work, but by the end of that movie there’s a real emotional resonance. You see all the jigsaw pieces come together. And that’s what we tried to do here.
What exactly was the goo? How does the goo work?
Ah, well the Priest character — the ex-Catholic Priest, because religion has been banned — he’s at the rendezvous point in the closed church, then they all head over to a fence, someone on the black market. She has a line you can easily miss. They ask “where did you get this?” and she says “they’re ships crash, too.” So the idea is they looted this material. She explains how it works a little: it’s a chameleon-like substance, and when activated it becomes invisible. But when activated it’s a finite amount of time before it explodes. The idea is that it can be smuggled in anywhere as a result. So this sets up the scene for the bomb at Soldier Field, but also for the end moments of the film. This is a substance that can bypass all forms of security. It’s alien tech.
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.