In 2011, director Rupert Wyatt surpassed expectations with a very human and emotionally driven take on the Planet of the Apes reboot with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. An origin story to the pending takeover by advanced intelligence primates, it took its time developing the bond between human father figure to central chimp Caesar while simultaneously furthering the divide between humans and primates that would culminate in war. In Captive State, the primates are traded for a bug-like alien race, and Wyatt swaps out deliberate pacing for dizzying speed.
After a tense opening sequence that sees a family of four trying to speed away from a Chicago currently under siege by a terrifying alien invasion, Captive State cuts to 10 years later. The bug-like alien race has taken up residence deep beneath the ground and the city fully under their command. Neighborhoods that once dared to fight off their oppressors now lay in ruins, and citizens remain under constant vigilance not just by the aliens but their human collaborators – mostly in the form of government officials. Captive State seeks to explore both sides of the conflict; the collaborators and those still looking to rebel and reclaim their freedom.
Co-written with Erica Sweeney, Wyatt turns a microscopic lens onto a growing conspiracy of dissidents and those who would seek to stop them. We’re introduced to Gabriel (Ashton Sanders), one of surviving children from the opening sequence’s family of four. It’s through him that we get a feel for what it’s like living under an oppressive regime as we follow his daily routine. But he soon finds himself caught in between the oppressors and the dissidents when he’s introduced to a group of rebels and subsequently tasked to provide intel by Police Officer Mulligan (John Goodman). From there the audience is plunged into the deep end of a dizzying conspiracy under serious time constraints.
Wyatt keeps the larger picture at bay for most of the runtime, opting to parcel out key info piecemeal as we’re introduced to the sprawling cast of characters and the roles they have to play in the grand conspiracy. It’s a complex plan that waits for the final act to come together, and until then Wyatt keeps the players zipping along at warped speed as they race to complete their portions of the plans. The hyper-focus on the specific rundown neighborhoods and the detached drive the characters have to complete their objectives is a clever way to force perspective in a setting rife with political turmoil. It also means that there’s not any one central character to latch onto. At best, Mulligan is the common thread between both sides of the captive state, but his motives remain so murky that he doesn’t engender himself to the audience well.
Unlike Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this isn’t a character drive piece at all, but one motivated by a complicated web of deceit and freedom. Wyatt doesn’t just move the plot along at a breakneck speed, he uses a pulse-pounding soundtrack to maintain the high energy levels needed for this adrenaline-fueled thriller. The alien invasion itself takes a back seat to the political. We get glimpses of the aliens, and a few intense moments of confrontation. A scene that sees the larval bug implants in humans being removed is particularly gruesome. Beyond that, though, we never learn too much about them as the rebellion scheme remains the focus.
The cast is stacked with actors who bring their A-game to small roles; Vera Farmiga, James Ransone, Madeline Brewer, Alan Ruck, and Ben Daniels are all standouts despite their very limited screen time. Goodman, as always, remains a presence that commands attention. But their entire identities are shaped by their situation and difficult to root for as such.
For those looking for a fast-paced thriller that crafts an exhilarating, complicated web, Captive State has a lot to offer. The political themes of class warfare can be heavy-handed, but the unique nature of this alien race helps soften it a bit. If characters with satisfying arcs are more your style, well, it’s best to sit this one out. Captive State is so tonally and stylistically opposite from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, though, that it’ll be interesting to see what Wyatt does next.