Given the allusions to literal and thematic Trojan Horses that pepper its third act, one probably shouldn’t be surprised that “Captive State” — which opened cold on March 14 after Focus mysteriously canceled screenings for critics — actually is something of a purposefully camouflaged interloper. Although the TV ads and other promotional material appear to promise a megaplex-ready thrill ride about space invaders and rebellious Earthlings, this rigorously intelligent, cunningly inventive, and impressively suspenseful drama plays more like a classic tale about a disparate group of resistance fighters united in a guerrilla campaign against an occupying force.
The big difference here, of course, is that the occupiers are extraterrestrials, not German troops or British colonialists. But, truth to tell, director Rupert Wyatt (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) and scriptwriter Erica Beeney (“The Battle of Shaker Heights”) don’t seem terribly interested in those intergalactic beasties, which appear only fleetingly on scattered occasions, and resemble some weird DNA commingling of Bigfoot, Elmo of “Sesame Street,” and a cactus. They’re scary enough to serve their purpose, but they’re certainly not the main attraction. Which is one of several reasons why “Captive State” is liable to make its mark as an esteemed cult favorite rather than as a box-office blockbuster.
There’s an appropriate and effective lo-fi look and feel to the way Wyatt and his ace production team depict everyday life under occupation in Chicago nine years after the extraterrestrials arrived, demanded unconditional surrender, and forced all nations on Earth to disarm and disband armies. While the new “legislators” (as the invaders are known) remain primarily in underground lairs, obedient quislings in government and law enforcement maintain tyrannical control over the populace.
Mind you, the majority of folks in Chicago — and presumably, elsewhere in the U.S. and across the globe — have drunk the Kool-Aid and accepted the many apparent benefits (strong economy, diminished unemployment, etc.) of extraterrestrial rule. A lavish pep rally, complete with a new and invader-stroking version of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” tells us all we need to know about how easily the sheep have been corralled.
But a few diehard freedom-fighters remain at large in the community, thereby necessitating the constant vigilance of lawmen like William Mulligan (John Goodman), commander of an inner-city neighborhood where insurgents reportedly congregate.
Under the new regime, digital technology is for the most part illegal — even the cops must rely on Polaroid cameras and tape recorders for surveillance and evidence gathering — leading to gainful employment for Gabriel (Ashton Sanders of “Moonlight”), one of many factory workers tasked with wiping data from cellphones and other devices that have been outlawed. Obviously, there isn’t much in the way of a background check where Gabriel works: He is the brother of Rafe, a resistance fighter who has morphed into an inspirational legend after being listed among the casualties after a police raid. Just as obviously, the cops didn’t do due diligence: Rafe (Jonathan Majors) is alive and reasonably well, and eager to help Gabriel get out of town before the resistance’s next major blow against the oppressors.
To say much more about plot specifics would not be fair, because “Captive State” is one of those relatively rare movies that are all the more gripping if you don’t fully understand what is happening on a minute-to-minute basis, and you’re forced to focus your attention to suss out just who is deserving of a rooting interest, and why they’re doing what they do. The plot has something to do with an assassination conspiracy, which generates as much sweaty-palmed tension as anything in the “Bourne Identity” franchise, and something else to do with contriving to make someone seem as safe and trustworthy as — yes, you guessed it! — a Trojan Horse. Rob Simonsen’s pulsating score propels the movie through the moodily hued urban landscape that DP Alex Disenhof aptly depicts as a place where the sun seldom shines, and nights are fraught with threats.
If you’re a movie buff, you’re more likely to be thinking of Roberto Rossellini’s “Open City,” Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Army of Shadows,” or even Gillo Pontecorvo’s “The Battle for Algiers” than any version of “The War of the Worlds” as “Captive State” methodically envelops you. But if you have never seen — or even heard of — most of the aforementioned films, don’t let that keep you away. Wyatt and Beeney have pulled off something truly audacious and ingenious here, even if they don’t always make it easy to keep up with them.
In fact, they invite, if not demand, repeated viewings of their handiwork, if only to better appreciate the contributions made by, in addition to those already mentioned, Kevin Dunn as a sleazily self-serving collaborator, Alan Ruck as a newspaper reporter in league with the resistance — and Vera Farmiga as a shady lady who knows how to affect a friend, and her audience, with her shrewd use of Nat King Cole’s recording of “Stardust.” If you were on the fence about a movie that’s being hidden from press and positioned to audiences, go ahead, see “Captive State” now. Don’t wait for the cult to coalesce.