Timely, smart Captive State a stunning surprise

There were advanced screenings scheduled for Focus Features’ Captive State. They were cancelled. Commercials and trailers for the film were few and far between and the film opened last week with no advance reviews and little fanfare. Of course, these are all signs that the movie in question is one the studio has little faith in and hopes for at least one good weekend at the box office before word gets out they have a stinker on their hands.

Why Focus Features took this approach is beyond me as State proves to be the most intriguing film of the young 2019 movie year, a timely, uncommonly smart piece of science fiction that manages to deliver potent commentary on our society of haves and have-nots as well as an engrossing narrative that contains one clever turn after another, leading to a satisfying twist that will likely leave viewers stunned.

Picking up in the year 2026, the citizens of Earth have been under alien rule for nearly a decade. All countries have surrendered to the invaders, who live underground and are rarely seen, with central parts of major cities being walled off, serving as compounds for these powerful creatures. Digital dampeners have been installed rendering all cellphones useless, while all citizens have been implanted with a small, alien bug that allows them to be tracked wherever they go.

Gabriel Drummond (Ashton Sanders) and his friend Jurgis (Machine Gun Kelly) have hatched a plan to flee what’s left of Chicago, hoping to escape across Lake Michigan. With his brother Rafe (Jonathan Majors) having been killed the year before leading a resistance movement, the young man is barely clinging to any hope of living a normal life. Because of his brother’s rebellious activity, the authorities have been keeping an eye on him, especially William Mulligan (John Goodman), his father’s former partner on the police force who’s been working with the aliens as a matter of survival.

I will say no more about the plot other than it’s constructed like a Russian doll, revealing one layer after another until we reach its ironic, shocking conclusion. Wyatt takes a pseudo-documentary approach to the material, generating a sense of realism similar to the Italian classic The Battle of Algiers (1966), as the guerrilla urban warfare on display here is rendered in an intimate manner that creates a sense of urgency that’s palpable. Location shooting in Chicago’s most blighted areas also adds a layer of verisimilitude that helps make the viewer feel as though they’re in the midst of this nightmare.

The film lags at times and could do with a bit of a trim to move things along. Ironically, Wyatt is able to sustain a sense of tension throughout as the circumstances facing the band of resistance fighters that emerge become increasingly dire. However, once writers Erica Beeney and Wyatt reveal all the cards they masterfully held close to their vest, we realize there’s a method to their deliberate narrative madness as the conclusion is very smart and genuinely surprising, one that plays fair with the logic that’s been so meticulously set out.

Likely, Captive State will not find an audience during its initial release. It’s not the usual Hollywood sci-fi product, as it eschews massive special effects laden battle scenes and bland generic stereotypes. Hopefully, it will be discovered by viewers through various post-theatrical platforms and garner a cult following. It’s a movie that will hold up to, and demands, repeat viewings to appreciate its intricacies.

Unfortunately, the social issues it tackles and our inability to adequately address them will insure the film remains timely.  

Contact Chuck Koplinski at koplinski@usd116.org.

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