“Pilsen isn’t Wicker Park.”
“Not yet it isn’t. … Pilsen is dead, they just don’t know it yet.” — exchange between Kevin Dunn and John Goodman in “Captive State.”
The Chicago in Rupert Wyatt’s new sci-fi chiller “Captive State” is instantly recognizable yet altogether unfamiliar.
That’s to be expected, with the story set in the near future — not to mention those creepy, shape-shifting aliens that have taken over the planet and turned Chicago and every other major metropolis in the world into, well, captive states.
But, hey, at least Soldier Field is still standing, though it appears the Bears have yielded the gridiron to patriotic rallies at which thousands demonstrate allegiance to the new regime, high school bands re-create the “First Contact” (aka the invasion), and the new national anthem is a rewritten version of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
There’s a LOT going on “Captive State,” which was filmed primarily at Cinespace Chicago Film Studios and in Pilsen.
Director and co-writer Wyatt has worked with major Hollywood budgets (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) before. But, despite its grand ambition, “Captive State” has much more of an indie-film feel.
And yet Wyatt and his production team do an admirable job of plunging us into a futuristic version of Chicago in which an alien spaceship that looks like a giant arrowhead occasionally takes off from its perch out on Lake Michigan. The downtown area is a closed zone where locals are basically doing slave labor to support the interests of the aliens who live under the city, and the city’s once-mighty skyline has been reduced to a charred profile, with only a few familiar skyscrapers still standing amidst the bombed-out rubble.
After a brief and frantic and confusing prologue (one of the many times that “Captive State” deliberately leaves us in the dark about the big picture) set during the initial alien invasion, we zoom forward nine years to the Chicago of 2027.
The (mostly unseen) aliens are called “legislators” by humans who have fallen in line with the occupation — from the police force to compliant government officials to the majority of the populace.
Ah, but there’s a band of underground insurgents who refer to the aliens as “roaches” and use old-fashioned means of communication such as carrier pigeons and hidden messages in the classifieds section of print newspapers to communicate. (The aliens have confiscated all smart phones, computers, etc., and are collecting every bit of data in the world, for reasons never fully explained.)
At times,“Captive State” plays like a “Cloverfield”/”District 9” type film. More often, the aliens are almost an afterthought in the main conflict between the human authorities — led by Kevin Dunn’s Eugene Igoe, the regional commissioner, and John Goodman’s Bill Mulligan, who heads a special investigative unit — and a ragtag band of rebel-insurgents straight out of a WWII or Cold War film.
Jonathan Majors is the legendary, thought-to-be-dead antihero Rafe Drummond, who led the failed insurgency of Wicker Park a few years back. Ashton Sanders (“Moonlight”) is his little brother Gabriel, who shares his thirst for revenge against the aliens who killed their parents.
The eclectic supporting cast includes everyone from Machine Gun Kelly to Madeline Brewer to character actors such as D.B. Sweeney and Alan Ruck, who’s a long way from playing Cameron all those years ago in the SLIGHTLY lighter Chicago-set fare of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
And we haven’t even talked about Vera Farmiga’s unnamed character, a Pilsen prostitute who cues up the turntable when clients visit, is fond of saying things like, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts” and has a certain painting on the wall that might have been intended as a subtle clue but is actually a dead giveaway of twists to come.
Though “Captive State” has plenty of action, it’s not a blood-and-guts sci-fi thriller. It aims for a more cerebral, social-commentary approach.
(The aliens are so-so. They make that clickety-click-click sound favored by many a predatory alien, and they kind of resemble a combination pufferfish/porcupine with human appendages when they get agitated.)
Goodman, Dunn and Farmiga play even the more ridiculous elements straight, as if they’re in a cop movie. The younger actors are all terrific as well.
More than once, I found myself thinking “Captive State” might have worked better as a series on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Lord knows it’s packed with more than enough characters and story threads to keep the momentum going beyond this story.
This would have been a promising pilot for such a series.
Focus Features presents a film directed by Rupert Wyatt and written by Wyatt and Erica Beeney. Rated PG-13 (for sci-fi violence and action, some sexual content, brief language and drug material). Running time: 109 minutes. Now showing at local theaters.