Review of Captive State (2019)

Moving picture, 109 minutes

Seen in 2021.

Two people rebel against the occupation of Earth nine years after aliens killed their parents.

The big-picture concept is similar to Marc Laidlaw’s Half-Life 2 (2004), but less ambitious. In Captive State there is no anti-terraformation, there is no funky alien ecology intersecting Earth’s, and there is not even any interesting new technology nor much new architecture in occupied Chicago, just tracking implants and high-explosive goo. Smartphones seem to have been outlawed and SD cards are being methodically destroyed, yet, in a great convenience for the VFX budget, human life has changed little. The alien presence consists mainly of subterranean warrens which are never shown. The aliens themselves practice Deioces’s rule of invisibility. They make an appearance in the opening scene, which is refreshing relative to films like Super 8 (2011), but when they reappear later, the lights are low, the cuts are fast, the camera is unstable and the soundtrack pulses rapidly to stress the viewer, because the filmmakers are unskilled and have no artistic purpose.

The script is awful, narrowly focused on a handful of poorly developed characters. It’s built around the “twist” that star John Goodman’s character is secretly a hero who’s actually working with the rebels he spends the entire film nonsensically exposing. Meanwhile, the only true villain who ever provides an explanation for collaboration is the police commissioner, Goodman’s boss, who says only that he hopes to leave the planet because Earth will be destroyed, implicitly by the rapid extraction of natural resources off world. Which resources are being extracted is not stated and no reason is ever given for why the aliens would want to grab them off Earth instead of a lifeless rock with less gravity. It is parsimonious to conclude that the aliens are evil and stupid, like the human collaborators who believe they will be rewarded when they have in effect committed genocide and ecocide and are no longer useful.

As science fiction it’s so poor that I detect an allegory by default. It is mentioned in passing that wealth inequality is rising in the occupation, but this real-world problem has no obvious intradiegetic relationship to the occupation. It is not clear whether capitalism is supposed to be running amuck for some reason, nor whether the aliens are handing out contracts for tax money, or bribing cops with gold or whatever. Resource extraction suggests an environmental problem, which does have an obvious relationship to the occupation, but the entire film takes place in Chicago. There is no natural life or authorial comment on the lack thereof, nor any sign on screen of devastation even on the scale of Tagebau Hambach.

The key to the allegory seems to be the opening credits’ shots of high-level political summits. Intradiegetically, these summmits were called to organize the Quisling governments. Extradiegetically, the true source of the summit footage is of course real-world summits. There are no aliens in any of them. This suggests that the stated problem of wealth inequality is code for political inequality. The aliens are termed “Legislators” throughout. Their power is primarily political rather than economic or even military, as strange as that is given their apparently selfish economic motives. Consequently, the script puts special emphasis on how the Chicago Police Department is under direct alien control.

The film’s best scene is of a ceremony at the Soldier Field stadium, years into the occupation, where a cheering crowd watches an alien ship descend as a singer belts out an Orwellian rewrite of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, looking a little like Kimberly Guilfoyle at the 2020 Republican National Convention. The announcer claims the aliens represent American values and “democracy”. The latter statement is a lie as blatant as Mexico paying for Donald Trump’s wall, but it’s not a satire on Trump. The corrupt police commissioner’s plan to leave the planet is not intradiegetic propaganda, yet it makes as little sense as the evil motives Trump attributed to Hillary Clinton in his 2016 campaign propaganda.

The allegory is not aliens = right-wing authoritarians but simply aliens = politicians, regardless of ideology. In this allegory, the heroes of the film are killing politicians. In fact, they do this both literally and figuratively, as guerillas. Nothing more constructive is ever done by any party to the conflict. This makes for an ineffective comment on populism or authoritarianism, yet in a 2019-04-14 interview with The Verge, director Rupert Wyatt confirmed that he set out to comment on “an authoritarian government” which he considered “wholly relevant on any number of levels”. For his own part he denied any political conviction.

The human uprising against the aliens, which ends the film, maps pretty well onto the January 6, 2021 storming of the United States Capitol. Many of those who perpetrated that attack believed in apocalyptic conspiracy theories (e.g. QAnon) that dehumanized their political opponents and asserted that the USA was a captive state. They thought Trump, like Goodman’s character, would reveal himself as a saviour at just the right moment. A few brought bombs and plastic handcuffs to the event, apparently planning to achieve their political ends by about the same means as the rebels of Captive State. They killed. Unfortunately, this is the part of the film with the most substantive relevance to the real world.

The film’s allegorical depiction of authoritarianism and of the violent struggle against it are cynical and dull. The production is not saved by gender or ethnic diversity, nor by its intentionally superficial personal dramas. While the most basic concept is good and worked well in Laidlaw’s hands, as well as in “A Study in Emerald” (2003) and earlier works, its reimplementation in Captive State is bad. I sense that this film was intended to bring Blomkamp’s “Rakka” (2017) to feature length, adding too little.

moving picture fiction