Friday, March 15, 2019

In Theaters: CAPTIVE STATE (2019)

(US - 2019)

Directed by Rupert Wyatt. Written by Erica Beeney and Rupert Wyatt. Cast: John Goodman, Ashton Sanders, Vera Farmiga, Jonathan Majors, Kevin Dunn, James Ransone, Alan Ruck, Kevin J. O'Connor, Colson Baker, Madeline Brewer, Ben Daniels, D.B. Sweeney, Caitlin Ewald, KiKi Layne, Lawrence Grimm, Guy Van Swearingen, Rene Moreno, Michael Collins, Marc Grapey. (PG-13, 109 mins)

Sometimes, flawed films that don't quite knock it out of the park end up being more interesting and more worthy of study than those we deem "great." CAPTIVE STATE is the kind of film that--let's just be honest here--is gonna tank in theaters. It's gonna tank hard. It's not what the ads make it look like, it's messy, it's a little disorienting in the way it throws out a lot of exposition in the early going, and it bites off a lot more than it can chew. But there's something here--it's politically and sociologically-loaded with historical metaphors, and takes a unique approach to its subject matter that almost guarantee it'll be the kind of film that has a serious cult following before it even leaves multiplexes in, well, probably a week. Shot two years ago, CAPTIVE STATE's release date was shuffled around multiple times--originally due out in summer 2018--as distributor Focus Features clearly had no idea what to do with it (I mean, what is that poster selling? The other one isn't any better). As a result, they're taking the easiest route possible and pushing it as a rote, run-of-the-mill alien invasion sci-fi actioner like it's another SKYLINE, and that does it a major disservice. Given the state of distribution today, it's a small victory that something like this even got made at all, let alone dumped on 2500 screens to certain doom. It's directed and co-written by Rupert Wyatt, best known for 2011's terrific RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. He directed 2014's THE GAMBLER in the interim, and while it looks like he had to make a few compromises, one can sense that CAPTIVE STATE is a pet project and something he's been ruminating on for quite some time.

In a prologue set in 2019, Earth is the target of an alien invasion. All of the world's major cities are seized by what are initially termed "roaches," alien beings of fluctuating, shape-shifting structure with a porcupine-like exterior. A cop and his wife are killed trying to flee Chicago, making orphans of their two young sons Rafael and Gabriel. Cut to a decade later, and the world remains under control of the "roaches," now known as their preferred title, "The Legislators." All of the governments of the planet acquiesced and ceded control to The Legislators. Everyone is tracked via implant, their actions monitored. Crime has gone down and jobs have increased. Income inequality is greater than ever--the rich have never been richer and the living conditions of the poor are atrocious. Criminals and non-conformists are taken "off-planet," and forced into slave labor, never given any thought by a population that, overall, has it pretty good since the takeover. The Legislators have stuck around and remain underground in major cities beneath "Closed Zones" off limits to humans without special access, usually limited to high-ranking government or police officials who are periodically summoned by The Legislators to receive their marching orders.

Gabriel (Ashton Sanders of MOONLIGHT) lives in the slums of Pilsen and scrapes by working in a factory downloading and cataloging the SIM cards of confiscated cell phones and mobile devices for inspection by The Legislators. He lives in the shadow cast by his big brother Rafael, a legendary resistance leader who was killed a few years earlier when he helped orchestrate a failed uprising that resulted in the complete destruction of Wicker Park at the hands of the outraged Legislators. There's a new insurgent group calling themselves Phoenix, and Chicago cop William Mulligan (John Goodman, in his second teaming with Wyatt after THE GAMBLER) is convinced they're about to strike and further incur the wrath of their extraterrestrial rulers, who have established a near-totalitarian society but remain generally hands-off as long as the ostensible leaders do what they're told and the population behaves itself. He's also watchful of Gabriel, whose father was his old partner back in the day. Sensing that Gabriel has something to do with Phoenix, he monitors his activities and finds out shortly after Gabriel does that Rafael (Jonathan Majors) is alive in the ruins of Wicker Park, having successfully faked his death, removed his tracking device and gone completely off the grid to regroup and lead another revolt to take back the planet. There's a planned 10th anniversary "Unity Rally" celebration for The Legislators at Soldier Field, and Rafael and the members of Phoenix plot an elaborate infiltration of the event that could mean the end of Chicago--and other cities if The Legislators are angry enough--if they fail.

Wyatt and his wife/co-writer Erica Beeney (THE BATTLE OF SHAKER HEIGHTS) aren't really interested in a standard-issue alien invasion chronicle. We've seen INDEPENDENCE DAY and a hundred other movies of that sort, so they take it from a different angle, instead focusing on the insurgency and the dogged attempts of the weary Mulligan--who has conflicts of interest, to put it mildly--to stop it. The best stretch of CAPTIVE STATE is the riveting middle, which deals with Phoenix's planning and executing the Soldier Field "Unity Rally" plot. It's got an almost MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE quality to it, but taken as a whole, the entire film feels like DISTRICT 9 if written by John Le Carre. This is an alien invasion story told in the style of classic nuts-and-bolts espionage. Phoenix uses the personals of the newspaper to communicate to its members; a radio DJ relays coded messages over the air; resistance members have clandestine conversations on still-functioning pay phones; walls barricading Chicago neighborhoods from Closed Zones have a very distinct Cold War-era Berlin look to them; debriefing rooms at the Legislator compounds are filled with interpreters on headsets and look like the drab, chilly offices of the spymasters in TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY; and Goodman even gets to monitor some activities in what looks like a low-tech version of a Bourne crisis suite. There's other, more contemporary jabs at the world's uncomfortable willingness to cave to autocratic rule without question, and the Chicago P.D. engaging in what looks very similar to all manner of "enhanced interrogation" in the style of Gitmo.

Propelled by a killer electronic score by Rob Simonsen, CAPTIVE STATE balances a large number of characters and their locations and unfolds like a compelling page-turner of a novel. It's admirable in its ambition, but yeah, it's not perfect. It doesn't handle Vera Farmiga's character very well, barely utilizing her in what seems to be a nothing role, virtually guaranteeing to the seasoned moviegoer that she'll be the center of any any third act "surprise." And what is intended as a twist ending doesn't play out as well as Wyatt planned, with a reveal that ends up feeling like an unsatisfying deus ex machina that might negate much of what came before. It may not follow through 100%, and it wouldn't be incorrect to say that it collapses when it matters most, but there's a lot of good stuff here that's smart, densely-plotted, thoughtfully-constructed, politically-charged with historical and literary inspiration (Gabriel's oppressive workplace is positively Kafka-esque). You can nit-pick why so many pay phones still exist in 2029 or why The Legislators still allow newspapers, but goddamn, this thing aims for the fences and goes for broke, and there's something to be said for that. It succeeds a lot more often that it fails, and in an era of endless sequels, franchises, remakes, reboots, and soulless, assembly-line, focus-grouped product, something this brazenly original and ambitious deserves to be recognized even if, in the big picture with all things considered, it maybe only rates a "B" instead of an "A+." Shortcomings and stumbles be damned, if a fervent cult following forms around CAPTIVE STATE, count me in.

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoyed this movie and it's stuck with me. Finally, something original. If enough people see this, it will definitely make cult status among the sci-fi crowd. This movie was packed with a lot to say. I never noticed the shaky camera work and I have vertigo. Guess that's a turn off for some.