Occasionally, after half-hearing rumors about a great new film, I’ll assiduously avoid reading about it in order to go in with no expectations. Such was my experience with Captive State (2019), which lodged in my awareness months ago as “that upcoming SF film with John Goodman in it.” Sure enough, it is a great movie, all the better for spoiler-free viewing, a stunningly realized, thought-provoking skiffy metaphor that also happens to be an exceptional spy film.
Alas, the weakest aspect is the opening, a current-events montage punctuated by title-card exposition that sets the dystopian scene more explicitly than necessary. The Earth has been conquered and subjugated by an alien race known as the Legislators. The mysterious, spiky insectoids, having overwhelmed the Earth’s initial defenses, have placed their boot on humanity’s collective neck. Most people have been terrified into passive submission, and many—including Commander William Mulligan (Goodman) of the Chicago Police Department—have become active collaborators with the aliens. But a secretive network of resistance fighters, convinced the “roaches” are manipulating humanity into complacency so that they can strip-mine the planet of its resources, is laboring to strike a blow against the oppressors. Among the rebels is Gabriel Drummond (Ashton Sanders), a modest young data center worker who’s attempting to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, a legendary figure who died in the earliest days of the resistance. Gabe serves as a small but key figure in the resistance’s conspiratorial insurgency as they attempt a daring clockwork operation to strike back against the aliens.
With a rock solid cast that includes Vera Farmiga, Jonathan Majors, Alan Ruck, Madeline Brewer, Kevin Dunn, and a host of others, Captive State is an audacious, compelling, and structurally unforgiving film. Indeed, while the overly expositional opening feels clunky, it’s difficult to gauge how the film might have landed without its helpful orientation. Fortunately, this issue fades in the rearview mirror quickly enough, as the grim urban tale unfolds in a breathtaking feast of smart visual storytelling. At times it comes off like it’s going to be a cat-and-mouse battle between an underdog rebel (Gabriel) and a powerful collaborator (Mulligan), but as the plot escalates, it quickly reveals a broader, more symbolic conflict. Without ever tipping its hand, the film catapults the viewer through a clever maze, suspensefully detailing the elaborate machinery of the daring resistance plan, an inspiring act of collective, clandestine defiance in the face of overwhelming odds.
Captive State’s harrowing SFnal backdrop is, of course, a camouflage blanket thrown over the present state of our deeply broken world, but somehow the film never descends to the level of obvious polemic. At its core, it’s a story of resourceful underdogs working together to undermine a cruel, oppressive, unfair system. Anyone who can watch a film like this nowadays without identifying incisive commentary about our current troubles clearly hasn’t been paying attention. For the rest of us, Captive State is a gripping, powerful film of politically charged SF.