Rupert Wyatt’s dystopian, alien-occupation sci-fi has all the prerequisite signifiers of a totalitarian, Orwellian future, but by presenting its scenario “in situ”, for the most part, it runs with a good-guys terrorists narrative that probably seemed more original than it is; if anything, it’s a throwback to WWII yarns, which means that, as well made and performed as it is, it never finds itself breaking new ground.
Following the 2019 prologue, the main body of Captive State takes place in 2027, concerning itself with the attempts of a Chicago terrorist cell to infiltrate the walled-off Closed Zone, populated by their alien oppressors. These aliens have their own underground habitat and only go topside in spiky survival suits (the director has compared his insectoids to wasps in behaviour, in contrast to humans’ more nurturing bees). Wyatt emphasises urban decay and ruination through utilising pre-existing locations; effects are judiciously used (striking, anvil shaped craft, swarms of drones populating the skies), and at several points – notably when James Ransone appears – I was put in mind of David Simon making a sci-fi.
In this environment, all humans are bugged (rather than electronic, these appear to be an amalgam of organic parts), jamming shuts down digital communications, and there are deportations off planet; at one point, Kevin Dunn’s police commissioner makes it clear the Earth will be left an empty shell (“Any chance of getting off the dying rock, take it”). 1984-esque propaganda is duly delivered – natural resource extraction is ten times higher, employment is at record levels and crime at an all-time low – while referencing nine years of peace and prosperity since the advent of the Legislators.
Language used speaks to the difficulty of survival outside the system – “A few of us are off the grid now”, referring to the bug being removed – and we see individuals habitually rounded up on the streets. Consequently, the view of those colluding with the Legislators is harsh; a politician unwittingly chosen to carry a bomb is “Just another collaborator”. Wyatt sets up John Goodman’s William Mulligan as a dutiful Chicago Police Commander attempting to quash an insurgency, but there’s never much doubt he’s really Number One in the resistance (his cryptic meetings with Vera Farmiga’s “prostitute”). There’s an early, half-hearted attempt at misdirection (his lieutenant, Kevin J O’Connor suggests Mulligan keep his suspicions about a cell to himself, suggesting he might be in on it), but you’ll likely be fairly content to coast with it until the inevitable confirmation.
Mostly because Goodman’s such a good actor that it’s simply nice to see him in a lead role. There’s also some solid support from Jonathan Majors, Alan Ruck and Ben Daniels. Ashton Sanders (Moonlight), soon to be seen as Bobby Brown, isn’t so persuasive, but that’s perhaps because he’s too much of an audience surrogate.
Because Captive State is constantly on the move, however, there’s only ever a perfunctory sense of this world and its rules; we get a palpable insight into the Stasi-style oppression, but in some respects, to allow the milieu to breathe, we would have benefited from an entire series. Assuming, of course, Wyatt had the background mapped out that would sustain one; the aliens – “Roaches” – are impersonal and get even less shrift than, say, Torchwood’s; indeed, in the area of non-oxygen breathing aliens, something in the line of The Tripods’ environment seems to be a touchstone, but without the texture.
One can find plandemic predictive programming here, then, most specifically with the mask wearing, which is standard-issue in tech recycling centres and more pervasive still when it comes to meeting the Legislators. However, the resistance tone, whereby it is only through infiltration, through fooling the dark forces and turning their plans against them, that freedom will prevail, is more suggestive of White Hats than the inevitability of a WEF future; one might instead see the Legislators as having always (well for hundreds of years, anyway) been here, with Captive State simply making the conditions of imprisonment more overt. Wyatt adopts a credits-coda approach in reverse of the one Rise of the Planet of the Apes used, documenting victory – or movement that way – against the invaders. The destruction of the Chicago zone leads to similar uprisings elsewhere in the world; whether these aliens just collectively sigh and “nuke” the Earth from orbit in response is left to the viewer’s discretion.
Wyatt’s last, a remake of The Gambler, was inadvisable for many reasons, not least headlining Mark Wahlberg in a proper “acting” role. Nevertheless, he’s still responsible for the best of the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy, before Matt Reeves managed to make them respectably pedestrian in content. His next, Desert Warrior, a seventh-century-Arabia tale with Anthony Mackie, Sharlto Copley and Ben Kinsley, is due this year and sounds resolutely missable. Albeit, that was the general critics’ verdict for Captive State. Unremarkable, certainly, but confirmation that Wyatt’s a talented director in search of an elusive great idea.
First published by Now in Full Color on 25/06/22.