Captive State

Well-crafted, intelligent alien invasion movie

As a film reviewer, occasionally my deadline coincides with a month when there aren’t any films I’m particularly interested in. So, I scroll a bit further down the list and usually end up seeing one I don’t know much about. Sometimes, it doesn’t take long to realize there was a good reason a particular film flew under my radar. But other times I discover a good one.

Captive State is one of those.

A science fiction film directed by Rupert Wyatt (Rise of Planet of the Apes), Captive State is set in the near future after aliens have invaded the earth and follows Gabriel Drummond (Ashton Sanders), a young man who gets caught up in an insurgency against the aliens, and William Mulligan (John Goodman), a Chicago police officer working for the alien-collaborating Special Branch.

In a few brief opening scenes, Captive State sketches out the invasion by the Legislators, a creepy alien race demanding world-wide surrender and de-militarization. The film then jumps 10 years to an urban Chicago now living under an alien-controlled surveillance state and martial law. The gap between rich and poor has grown exponentially, with the rich crowding stadiums and cheering the peace and prosperity supposedly brought by the aliens while the poor live in impoverished neighborhoods, work jobs mining resources for the aliens and occasionally disappear in rumored mass deportations. Advanced technology is forbidden, and the Legislators use the Chicago police to maintain law and order and gather intelligence on an underground group of insurgents.

Gabriel, who as a child witnessed the aliens kill his parents and whose older brother died as an insurgent, longs for a new life. He struggles to keep his head down, make ends meet and find a way out of the city.

When he agrees to be a courier for some extra cash, he is suddenly immersed in the dangerous world of the insurgents—and we are drawn into a complex, thought-provoking and at times heart-pounding thriller.

Which I am not going to spoil with any more plot points. Because Captive State is that kind of film. It is well-crafted and intelligent with long-con and political-thriller-like elements. The less you know about the plot going in, the better your experience will be.

But we can talk about the film’s craft—which is impressive in a number of ways.

Particularly impressive is the way the film intentionally connects with other periods in history, which lends it weight. Through recurring images like a Trojan horse, collaborating neighbors peering through curtained windows, or meetings in parking structures, the film connects to Greek myths, resistance fighters in World War II and the political intrigue of the 1960s and 1970s, investing the archetypal-like depth of those moments in the characters and scenes in the film.

The deliberate attention to detail is also impressive and strengthens its world-building. The sets are carefully crafted, from the book shelves and pictures in a prostitute’s apartment to the bombed out neighborhoods that feel like a 1980s beleaguered Beirut, or modern day Aleppo.

The film also seems to have an intentionally retro feel. With advanced technology forbidden, people use Polaroid cameras, cassette tape recorders, record players, push-button land-line phones, dial-up modems, pay phones and even homing pigeons. Much of that, along with the gritty and hued tones, give the film a 1970s feel, which is reinforced  by scenes and elements that feel like homages to films like All the President’s Men and other political thrillers of the era.

Even the names seem carefully chosen, either religiously rooted or with relevant meanings, like resolute protector, strong, or warrior.

The film skillfully explores a range of thought-provoking themes, from what’s behind the choices people make to collaborate with or fight against an oppressive government, and what people are willing to sacrifice for the greater good. We grasp how small acts can ripple into larger ones and how we all play roles in a larger story—and how seeing that larger story can change the way you see everything else.

Captive State evidently doesn’t appeal to everyone. It’s rating at Rotten Tomatoes falls under 50 both with critics and moviegoers, and its opening weekend box office earnings were a disappointment.

The film isn’t without its flaws. It’s uneven at times and the main characters aren’t as developed as they could be, maybe because there are so many of them.

But it was the kind of film that had me guessing and engaged in the theater and looking up the meaning of names and mulling myths and history afterwards—and not many alien invasions movies have done that.

Captive State is rated PG-13 for science fiction violence and action, some sexual content, brief language and drug material.

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