Captive State was initially misunderstood. Released in March, it received mixed reviews, described by some critics as ‘murky,’ ‘lugubrious,’ and ‘unexciting.’ Despite star turns by bubbling young upstart Ashton Sanders (Moonlight, Native Son), indie darling Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man In San Francisco), and industry veteran John Goodman, it grossed only $8 million against a $25 million dollar budget, making it a box-office bomb. But I believe this film will develop a cult following over the years. It’s depiction of a group of political anarchists attempting to overthrow the alien-subjected government was as fascinating a film as I’ve seen in recent years, complicated and more than a bit disturbing, with ideals that stayed with me long after the film ended.
Marketed as a sci-fi thriller about aliens taking over the planet, Captive State was really more so an espionage neo-noir merely set against the backdrop of invasion. Sanders plays Gabriel, a cynical worker in a factory where he destroys memory cards and other electronic devices at the extraterrestrials command, after uploading the contents to a vast network of digital surveillance. He is unwittingly drawn into a political plot to overthrow the alien overlords — deemed ‘The Legislators’ — by his older brother, Rafe (Majors), who is the leader of the human resistance.
Majors and Sanders have undeniable chemistry as brothers, and both demonstrate how far one would go to protect their family members. After an unsuccessful attempt against the Legislators led to the bombing of their Wicker Park neighborhood in Chicago, Rafe faked his own death and went underground to protect his younger brother. But when the Legislator-run human police department eventually captures Rafe, Gabriel turns spy, becoming a double agent in the resistance to gather information for Goodman’s police commander, William Mulligan. We are drawn deeper into the world of both the resistance and the police force racing to catch them before, and ultimately after, they carry out an act of political terrorism against the Legislators. The scenes of the resistance planning and executing the plan are darkly tense and suspenseful, as they utilized a complicated schema of codes and signals involving an advertisement in the newspaper classifieds, the surgical removal of tracking devices implanted in every human citizen, and a hand-off of an organic bomb hidden in a toilet and set to detonate at a major political event. The direction of these scenes is sleek and fast-paced, reminiscent of a heist film and demonstrating the paranoia of those involved in what is hugely criminal activity.
The members of the resistance, called Phoenix, are not depicted as the usual action hero revolutionaries filled with bravado and rage- instead they are terrified and sad, driven to these actions by the poverty and oppressive conditions they find themselves living in under the Legislators. They jump at shadows, obsessively bite their fingernails, and live at both a physical and emotional distance from their families, who would instantly become targets for capture and torture by the police for information if they were found out. Revolution work is difficult, messy and frightening, where participants have to be prepared at any moment to die for their beliefs, and Captive State doesn’t shy away from that fact. When one of their key members is revealed to be a head writer at the lone remaining human newspaper, one that has become a propaganda machine for the Legislators, he kills himself rather than be found out and tortured. Indeed, every member of Phoenix carries a pill of cyanide as a last resort for if they are ever captured by the enemy. This isn’t glorified by any means, and when another member takes his pill at a bus station, his death is violent and messy, inducing a seizure where he dies foaming at the mouth and convulsing in agony. It is as far away from ‘going out in a blaze of glory’ as one can get.
This is a film that takes a stark look at what it means to believe in a cause so wholeheartedly you will give everything to see it carried through. While we root for them to triumph against the Legislators, there is also no hiding the fact that Phoenix is, in fact, a terrorist group that is ultimately actively working against the state. It is an even more difficult decision to revolt, even when revolt is the only thing that is right, if the state thwarts and threatens you at every turn. Gabriel, who disappears for a good chunk of the middle of the film as Phoenix carries out their plan in absolute secrecy, is the straight man to Rafe’s revolutionary, the younger brother who just wants to live day to day at the factory, sleep with his girlfriend, and ultimately restore a boat and attempt to cross Lake Michigan to possible freedom. While his personality is much more hotheaded than Rafe’s cool pragmatist (and pragmatism is certainly required when planning a revolution), he is vehemently opposed to Phoenix and only becomes drawn in after discovering his brother is alive and still leading it. When that same brotherly love leads him to become a spy after Rafe is captured and violently tormented in front of him, it is heartbreaking to witness. There are also undeniable racial echoes as both Rafe and Gabriel are Black and Mulligan, their persecutor at the behest of the state, is white. It is easy to see parallels with our current (and historic) state of political affairs, where the law says one thing but common human decency says another.
The film is a series of moves and countermoves, a chess game where the humans themselves are the knights and pawns attempting to take down the other major players on the board. The aliens are barely shown, but when they are seen, they are truly ferocious and otherworldly, covered in aggressive black spindles and equipped with the ability to literally vaporize bodily organisms on sight, even from several feet away. They live in tunnels deep underground but so completely overwhelm and annihilate the humans that the invasion aspect is over within the first ten minutes of the movie. Phoenix is forced to devise such a complex plan to get around how helplessly outmatched they are physically. Perhaps this is something that rubbed critics long used to seeing chivalrous ‘humanity’ physically fighting back — usually an embodiment of the Western world and America, especially — the wrong way. There was no fighting back. There was a hostile takeover, and then a resistance against the new world order. Phoenix’s willingness to use violence and explosives, even in venues with thousands of other citizens present, also probably raised the hackles on those unprepared for such a serious political undertone in a simple ‘alien invasion’ genre.
I will say there is a twist at the end that feels safe. It sets up a bit of a redemption arc for Mulligan’s police commander, who has appeared excruciatingly committed to upholding the law and order of the state for much of the film, and also leaves us with something of a forced happy ending. Despite this, the fundamental themes of Captive States and strong on their own: How far would you go to protect your family, or to free your people? As a citizen-servant of the state, is it your duty to uphold the law of the people, even if it harms the people? How do you know what is right, and what is wrong, and ultimately what side of the line you stand on? What would you sacrifice for a revolution? There are no individual answers. But Captive State asks the questions, and asks them well, and that alone makes it a film worth watching.