Review: 'Captive State'

Humanity fights back against a fascist alien regime in 'Captive State'
In 'Captive State' secret police and rebels match wits.

After the end of the world, the lights are still bright in Chicago's Loop; there's a veneer of normalcy, as long as you're in the right class and stay in the right places. The top-notch, poorly titled Captive State by Rupert Wyatt of Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the first feature film to acutely deliver the mood of fear in the Trump era. This is what a real resistance would be like.

After a shock and awe alien invasion, the world's governments capitulated and instituted a collaborationist regime. Nine years later, the aliens—rebranded as "The Legislators"—run things, strip-mining the earth, drilling, baby, drilling, and sending obstinate humans to some off-world slave labor colony. The sun is wreathed in smog. The new lords reward their Quislings.

As that cherished Simpsons joke has it, there are plenty of journalists ready to welcome our new insect overlords. Really white pop is the permitted radio music, approximately what you'd hear on the radio in Saskatoon in 1966.

Down in their bunkers, the aliens must be smart enough to sense restlessness, because they're permitting a "Peace, Unity and Harmony" rally at Soldier Field. It's a magnet for a revolutionary action.

The script by Wyatt and his wife Erica Beeney doesn't center around the usual young adult-lit style hero, with one brave warrior giving hope. Rather, the rebels are odd types: nurses, teachers, whores and street criminals, prepared not be taken alive. The aliens monitor all broadband, so the resistance uses analog technology: reel to reel tapes, carrier pigeons, typewriters, and secret messages hidden in cigarette papers. We're lured into the story through a we-are-the-dead set of lovers, like Winston and Julia in 1984. In the nighttown slums of Pilsner, a Chicago suburb, sex worker "Jane Doe" (Vera Farmiga) has luxuries, a record player and a vase of fresh cut flowers. Her trick is the secret policeman William Mulligan (John Goodman).

Wyatt cuts from this sadness into brutally shot urban guerrilla action. On the graffitied walls are memorials to Rafe (Jonathan Majors), seemingly killed in an insurrection in Wicker Park, which was flattened by reprisal bombings. His surviving little brother, Gabriel (Ashton Sanders, of Moonlight), has a forced-labor job as a deleter of sim cards. He's pulled into the rebellion. We can see how they live in this occupied city when Mulligan offers Gabriel a bribe to make him talk, and the bribe is a very small chunk of naan bread.

Captive State isn't perfect. There's an inelegant info dump by teletype in the opening, which reads like an arcade game telling you what you're going to be shooting at. The whippy, small-camera technique can leave you puzzled; a couple of escapes are exciting in the set-up but then vague in the finale.

The $25 million budget doesn't permit a new kind of alien. They're standard buggos: a gorilla-size crown-of-thorns starfish in close up, but crouching form as seen from 100 paces, they earn their popular nickname, "roaches." We never see their throne room, but we learn that visiting humans need to be enveloped in germicide because they can't stand our smell. The "Legislators" stand on protocol—"Let them talk first," urges a translator, trying to get a vice mayor ready for the meeting. The rally the humans stage for their honor is as fearful as you'd imagine, a thundering marching band circling a female figure posing in gaping awe, staring at the skies in gratitude.

Films like these are usually populist, with the dictator villains drawn from some safe-for-all combination of the fearful excesses of left and right. But it's tough to read Captive State as anything but a film on the side of the insurgents, a thriller of colonists and colonizers. Despite the analogies to the Nazi occupation, this is not an exercise in neo-noir. That said, Farmiga, a delicate and deeply apt tragic actor, and the magnificent old bull Goodman, with his eloquent grunts of displeasure, make them a pair of emissaries from a denser, richer and more soulful age of movies. Captive State provides a hopeful end without simple mindedness. While he doesn't spell it out, you can read a lot of the fate of fascists into Goodman's line, "Didn't you pay attention in history class, Gabriel?"

Captive State
PG-13, 109 Mins

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