March 20, 2019

"We're on an express elevator to hell, going down"

Review: Captive State--2 stars

(My ratings system: 1 star: Terrible; 2 stars: Okay; 3 stars: Liked; 4 stars: Really liked; 5 stars: Loved)

I really wanted to like this film. It has a promising beginning, with a fresh take on the "alien invasion" trope. Unlike Independence Day and others of its ilk, it doesn't show the actual invasion; the story picks up nine years afterwards, with the aliens (ironically, and tellingly, given the official name of the Legislators, unofficially called the "roaches," because they thrive in the dark) firmly ensconced on Earth and pretty much running the place. Apparently the governments of Earth rolled over when they came, signing agreements and bowing down (for sure, the aliens have the superior tech, but given the thousands of nuclear warheads still existing on the planet, you'd think somebody would have launched one, or more, of them rather than give in. Oh well, whatever). Now the mayor of Chicago, where the story is set, is touting the Legislators' rule as "saving humanity" or some such platitude. After a brief infodump recounting the invasion (and the apparent reduction of our society back to 80's era tech--bye bye smartphones, hello massive CRT's, minimal Internet, and dialup. Why? No reason given, other than to give the protagonist a job--uploading digital files and destroying the chips--where he could meet the rebels), we zero in on our protagonist, Gabriel Drummond. He is the younger brother of Rafael Drummond, a rebel leader now presumed dead, but revered to the point where his face is graffiti'd on brick walls citywide.

You already know what I'm going to say, don't you? Rafael ain't as dead as he seems to be. Gabriel is clumsily kinda-sorta trying to follow in his brother's footsteps, and friends of Rafe's lock a collar on him that blocks his tracking signal (everyone now has an ugly organic-looking tracking slug implanted in their throats) and takes him out to meet his abruptly-resurrected brother. The two are reunited in the best scene in the movie, as Rafe urges his brother to pick a side. Something big is going down, and Gabriel is not at all sure he wants to be in on it, but he gets dragged in anyway.

In this initial setup, we also meet John Goodman, a Chicago cop devoted to tracking down rebel cells, as the last revolutionary breakout resulted in the roaches wiping a section of Chicago off the map. This seems like an odd bit of casting, but he's surprisingly effective here (I guess someone saw Goodman's bravura performance in 10 Cloverfield Lane). He's introduced by way of a visit to a prostitute (the completely wasted Vera Farmiga--I don't know why in the hell she would take such a cliched, thankless role), to whom he unburdens himself, to a point, and apparently has been doing for some time. We find out Rafael and Gabriel's father, who was wasted by one of the aliens in the opening scenes (turned to a bloody mist, though I can't quite figure out why the parents in the car's front seats were killed and the kids in the back seat escaped unscathed. Oh yeah, that's right, because the plot demanded it) was Goodman's partner, and he's dedicated himself to watching after first Rafael and then his brother, whether Gabriel wants him to or not. Goodman's character, William Mulligan, is convinced that a new rebel cell is arising in Chicago, and he's determined to find it.

All well and good. Gabriel is an engaging character, and there are interesting questions raised regarding taking risks and fighting back vs. keeping one's head down and going along to survive, and just who are the real terrorists here. We follow Gabriel to the point where he ducks into a warehouse, pursued by a horde of alien drones that look like fleshy flying suckers, and barricades himself inside a glass-walled office. The drones plaster themselves to the glass, exposing their round creepy open mouths, and we don't know how Gabriel is going to get out of this....

And the movie cuts completely away from this suspenseful situation, to focus on a group of people we've either met briefly before or not at all, and to concentrate on what is eventually revealed (after a long dragass time) to be Rafael's resistance group. We're shown the coming together of its plan to infiltrate an upcoming rally at Wrigley Field, where the Legislators are actually going to make an appearance, and blow said Legislators up.

This interruption, and the cockamamie structure of the remainder of the film, threw me completely out of the story. After a bit of watching these people I didn't know and didn't give a shit about, I wanted to jump up and yell, "But what happened to Gabriel?" These two jumbled storylines do eventually dovetail together, sort of, but on reflection it seems to me the screenwriters were focusing on the wrong character. This is Gabriel's story, and it should have been Rafe's. This would have tightened up the story, and also would have improved an ending that gets more uncomfortable the more I think about it.

To wit: Rafael's blowing up the roaches at the rally succeeds, but then the aliens threaten to wipe more of Chicago off the map. Mulligan uses Gabriel to capture Rafe and his cell's survivors and lead the police to "Number One," the leader of the cell, who proves to be--guess who? Mulligan's girlfriend, who has also been screwing other higher-ups in the Chicago hierarchy. This is revealed in a lengthy bit of exposition (well, at least it was at the end of the film rather than the beginning), where Mulligan outlines the plot, names the terrorists and  many of the Chicago higher-ups who have been compromised (including the Commissioner) and is appointed acting Commissioner, which requires visiting the aliens in their stronghold underneath Chicago.

(And why are they there? We're not really told, other than "exploiting natural resources"--again, why?--and just to keep the aliens pretty much out of sight and the CGI costs down, I suppose. Although their one appearance, as a bipedal insectoid porcupine thing that communicates with whistles and clicks, is well-done and creepy.)

So the film's final twist is that Rafael and his compadres are taken aboard the aliens' ship and whisked offplanet, and Mulligan, the new Commissioner, gets on the elevator to drop down 300 feet to the alien stronghold. But as he goes down, we see a transparent liquidy goop begin to spread over his entire body--the same organic explosive that Rafael's crew used earlier--and we realize that this was a long, deep game orchestrated by Mulligan to get himself into the heart of the alien occupation and blow it to smithereens. Which would have been fine, if both Rafael and Number One (her name isn't listed on IMDB, but I remember it was being Rebecca) had ever been told about this. Instead, the ending carries a very unpleasant whiff of White Savior, as Mulligan manipulates and sacrifices both Rafe, Rebecca, and a great many other black and brown people to get to this point. This is why I think the protagonist should have been Rafael Drummond instead of his brother, and he (and Number One) should have been shown as consenting to and participating fully in this plan.

There's a lot of interesting ideas here, and it seems like there's a good film struggling to get out, but the poor storytelling structure and clashing storylines absolutely hamstring it. Somebody should have demanded the writers take another pass at the script, and also take a long hard look at just who gets to save who. This is 2019, people. We don't need old white guys saving us anymore.

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