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 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 after, 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 script by Wyatt and his wife, Erica Beeney, centers around the rebels: nurses, teachers, whores and street criminals. The aliens monitor all broadband, so the resistance uses analog technology: reel-to-reel tapes, carrier pigeons, and secret messages hidden in cigarette papers. We’re lured into the story through a set of lovers in the slums of Pilsner, a Chicago suburb: prostitute “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 to brutal urban guerrilla action. On the graffitied walls are memorials to Rafe (Jonathan Majors), seemingly killed in an insurrection in Wicker Park, flattened by reprisal bombings. His surviving little brother Gabriel (Ashton Sanders, of Moonlight) is pulled into the rebellion.
Captive State isn’t perfection; there’s an inelegant info dump by teletype in the opening: it’s 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 vague in the finale.
The $25 million budget doesn’t permit a new kind of alien. They’re standard-issue buggos, nicknamed “roaches.” We never see their throne room, but we learn that visiting humans must be enveloped in germicide because they can’t stand our smell.
It’s tough to read Captive State as anything but a film on the side of the insurgents, a thriller of colonists and colonizers. Farmiga, a delicate and deeply apt tragic actor, and the magnificent old bull Goodman, with his eloquent grunts of displeasure, make the pair emissaries from a richer, more soulful age of movies. Captive State provides a hopeful end without simple-mindedness. 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’ is playing in wide release.