I had the lowest expectations for Captive State. Alien insects in the near future subjugating earthlings and prompting a rebellion of ragtag misfits forced to band together to save humankind isn’t much of a selling point in my book. But it’s set in Chicago, so I had to go. I went in hoping for a dumb disaster flick with some cool location shots. What I got was a sly, impassioned rant about gentrification and authoritarianism, thinly disguised as a grimy B-movie. But the best thing about this surprisingly powerful film is how it uses the city of Chicago.
As any resident of the city in the past 10-15 years will know well, there are many movies and TV shows shot in Chicago. As a longtime local, I love seeing shots of places I know on screen. Dick Wolf’s ever-expanding franchise of "Chicago" brand shows is regularly shot here, as is Shameless, but neither uses the city accurately or as an inherent part of its storylines. In Empire, at least the pretense is dropped altogether and Chicago is a stand-in for New York. I’ve always considered it a cinematic city and been baffled by how rarely it’s given its due on screen. Captive State does just that.
In the dystopian world of the film, the Pilsen neighborhood is the focal point of the rebel resistance against the insect overlords. I braced for shots of the lake or the el or Wrigley Field—as most films and TV shows believe that represents Chicago—but saw Blue Island Avenue instead. There are chase scenes in Pilsen alleys, many views of the warehouses and vacant lots in nearby neighborhoods, and a general commitment to actual geography that I found refreshing and which made me suspend my disbelief at the creakier moments of the screenplay. Once it is announced that Wicker Park has been destroyed due to earlier insurrectionist activity, the parallels with local gentrification patterns become crystal clear.
Genre movies have always been used as allegories for real-life problems. Invasion of the Body Snatchers explored the Red Scare and xenophobia in ways that no news report or academic study could. Substitute Captive State’s aliens for real-estate developers and it becomes a docudrama. The cop raids looking for rebels could’ve been taken from newsreel footage of Chicago police activity, and the film’s climactic government rally at Soldier Field has the same apocalyptic atmosphere I feel when passing by on an average game day—traffic is clogged, security is heightened, and screams of a thousands-strong mob carry out into the air past the stadium walls.
The idea of an American government ceding control to a foreign entity doesn’t take much of an imaginative leap at this point. The hideous insects controlling the country mostly remain in the shadows, making them that much more sinister, but their aims and methods will be familiar to anyone living in 2019. They’re here to plunder all of the planet’s resources. Their motive is basically greed. News reports are full of pro-government disinformation, and several characters work in a facility devoted to collecting and wiping data off cell phones; this is hardly science fiction.
The plot and characters in Captive State are cookie-cutter. We’ve seen this story and these people a million times. What sets it apart is setting. The Pilsen portrayed on screen is recognizable to anyone who’s walked that neighborhood’s streets and alleys. A community controlled by tracking devices and disinformation grounds the action in lived reality as well. Whether our streets are under assault by alien insects or craven speculators, if a filmmaker shows the places we know and love, we will care about the story's fate, no matter how far-fetched.
The conclusion of Captive State is open-ended. The resistance mounts one last attack but we don’t know if they’ll succeed or fail. I, for one, am rooting for the bomb throwers, because if they’re defeated, the aliens will be gunning for Bridgeport. And that’s way too close for comfort.
Written and directed by Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes). With John Goodman, Ashton Sanders, Jonathan Majors, Machine Gun Kelly, and Vera Farmiga. v