The world suffers an imbalance. An alien authority known as the Legislators has invaded Earth under the false promise of “peace, unity, and harmony.” Governments have been seized. Militaries demobilized. Cities walled off. The great, last hopes of the contemporary age have fully rotted, giving way to a climate of fear and subjugation. Social fractures run deep. So deep that there now exists an impassable chasm between rich and poor. These are violently oppressive times. A contagion infects the very rituals of democracy. It is a nation created anew, made scarily singular: the United State of America. The setting for Rupert Wyatt’s Captive State is propelled by a sustained fever of unrest. In this occasionally ambitious film, crisis sprouts, spreads. If our unsteady course with Trump at the helm holds, it is a reality that could very well be ours.
In the withered totalitarian wasteland of Chicago, a spark flickers. A rebel group named Phoenix has awakened dissidents with a simple message: “Light a match. Ignite a war.” Among those long tired of unjust alien rule is Gabriel Drummond (Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders), a resourceful, if sometimes naive, young man who works at a “data reclaim center.” He lives a humdrum existence just above the poverty line, clawing for any semblance of power. Wanting better for himself, his best friend Jurgis (Machine Gun Kelly), and his girlfriend (who seems entirely too content in a life of nonstop surveillance), Gabriel attempts to break free of Chicago’s tightly policed walls for good. The plan seems near impossible. But he can’t turn back—the match is lit.
Across the divide is Officer Bill Mulligan (a bullish, imposing John Goodman), a veteran lawman who has a hunch that a resistance still brews in the shadows, preparing for a citywide insurgency. He’s not wrong. For years, Phoenix has operated as a small network of blue-collar residents—teachers, students, former Marines, journalists—who communicate via classified newspaper ads. Their next attack, during a ceremony marking a decade since “first contact” was made, is speculated to be their biggest yet.
Gabriel’s older brother, Rafe (Jonathan Majors), believed to be dead, is a central artery in Phoenix’s rebel cause. To the great shock of Gabriel, he discovers Rafe is alive and has been living off the grid as a fugitive for some time. Their reunion runs short. After a plot to bomb the Legislators succeeds, Rafe is captured and put at the mercy of a mission-focused Mulligan.
Because Rafe is Gabriel’s last lifeline to family—when the Legislators first arrived in Chicago, their parents were killed in an attempt to flee north—he agrees to cooperate with Mulligan in weeding out the last of Phoenix in exchange for his brother’s life. (Adding a layer of complexity is the fact that Mulligan and Gabriel’s dad were former partners on the force.) Still, the reality of the moment could not be more stark. It’s as Rafe expresses to Gabriel at one point: “You gotta pick a side.” The great trick of Captive State, however, is that allegiances are not entirely what they appear to be.
Wyatt, who also directed Rise of the Planet of the Apes, saturates his new film with raging symbolism and the agonies of revolution. Sci-fi dystopian narratives being so rife for interpretation—in this case, a sometimes-sobering peek into one possible future—the film adds to a contemporary discourse around the perils of political tyranny and why the threat of such futures, extraterrestrial or real, should be scrutinized with the gravity they require.
As alien occupation thrillers go, Captive State sits in good company among Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi allegory District 9 and the 2005 Tom Cruise–led War of the Worlds. It’s a film that understands the limits of terrain—Wyatt’s eye never leaves the bleak tundra of Chicago for some intergalactic expanse of the alien overlords—with a feel for the politically cosmic. There’s also a paranoia that undergirds the movie’s interior, giving the backdrop and character movement a more menacing impression.
Captive State doesn’t need to shout; it works just fine as a contained rendering of the failures of democracy and its bleeding consequences. The metaphors are thick with resonance, rattling with a subdued charge. And though the rebel cell is imagined with a radical tint, Phoenix mirrors the sentiments of social justice factions like the ACLU and Black Lives Matter; in policy and tone, the Legislators don’t seem too far from what the Trump administration is working toward: total, unimpeachable control over the civil liberties of its citizenry. Stylish and action-dense, Captive State is not a sweeping cinematic manifesto, but it does register as a forewarning. Occupation is imminent; choose a side wisely.