“Successful science fiction stories are always the ones that, in a way, mirror our own society. For me, Philip K. Dick is one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time because he was always able to portray an aspect in his stories that we as a society could relate to,” says director Rupert Wyatt states about his original script for Captive State.
“We’re telling a story more of an alien occupation, not an invasion,” says Wyatt, (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Gambler, The Escapist) who crafted the screenplay with screenwriter Erica Beeney (The Battle of Shaker Heights), uses a grounded sci-fi setting to shine a timely light on the modern surveillance state and the threats to civil liberties.
Wyatt confirms that the screenplay evolved over several years before he and his wife finished writing it in 2016, polishing it over several more drafts prior to the start of production once Participant came onboard. He began sowing those creative seeds almost five years ago, when a different administration occupied the highest reaches of government in the nation’s capital. When production began in early 2017, a new leader had emerged in the polls, a political outsider whose first official (and alarming) proclamation had to do with civil liberties and travel bans.
The film depicts an unrecognizable Chicago nearly a decade after it has been occupied by an extraterrestrial force, and the role of dissent within an authoritarian society as seen through the eyes of a pair of brothers, long separated after the invasion, who reunite just as the elder of the pair leads a small group of homegrown revolutionaries to enact a plot to disable the aliens’ tracking monitor atop the Sears Tower. If successful, the mission could signal not only the aliens’ demise, but mankind’s freedom as well.
The film stars John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane, Patriot’s Day, Kong: Skull Island) as William Mulligan, a seasoned Chicago cop who has, for years, doggedly investigated an underground faction bent on ending the alien occupation, as much out of his dedication to the law as well as to the loyalty of his late partner, killed in the invasion, whose sons may be active participants in the cell; Ashton Sanders (Moonlight, Straight Outta Compton, The Equalizer 2) as Gabriel, the younger of two brothers who continues to hunt for his long-lost older sibling, long thought dead but now rumored to be alive and among a small group of dissidents actively plotting the overthrow; Jonathan Majors (When We Rise, Hostiles, White Boy Rick) as Rafe, Gabriel’s brother, the phantom-like underground fugitive called ‘The Phoenix’ who leads the charge to subvert the alien outsiders by bombing the Sears Tower and destroying the telecommunications device atop the skyscraper; and Oscar®-nominee Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air, The Conjuring, Godzilla: King of Monsters) as Jane Doe, a long-ago acquaintance of Mulligan’s whose mysterious past, now cloaked in the guise of an escort, may have preordained what the future holds for mankind.
“This being a science fiction story, or maybe a retro science fiction story, I was looking to create a world, a mythology, in many ways,” Wyatt continues about the development of his story. “We’re set nine years in the future. From the moment that the invasion happens up until the start of our story, I had to create a period of nine years. I took what was happening in our world today on many levels — social, political, environmental — and looked to exacerbate them. Create a world that people could still relate to in which civil liberties are being taken away from us as a society. Technological advancements have regressed. The idea was to create a world that we could still relate to, in the guise of science fiction.”
Producer David Crockett details about Wyatt’s timely parable, saying, “Captive State is a story that’s set nine years after aliens have invaded Earth. It is not a sci-fi/fantasy set in other worlds. It is a grounded sci-fi story set in a very real place.”
Picking up on his aforementioned thought, Crocket continues: “It deals with a small group of insurgents, from different environments and backgrounds, in Chicago. I don’t really see it as a dystopian or an Orwellian story, although there are certainly aspects of that blended into the script. This story takes place in a real world not all that different from our world today. If I were to draw analogies between Captive State and the world, I think the closest analogies would be to that of Nazi Germany. Or that of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Really a totalitarian regime controlling basic civil liberties and the lives of its own people.”
In a brief, action-packed prologue, Wyatt launches his cautionary tale with an alien invasion, circa 2016.
Focusing the assault in America’s heartland, Chicago, he quickly introduces an African-American family of four trying to escape the onslaught — a police officer, his teacher wife and their two sons, aged 11 and 15.
The invasion quickly takes a dramatic turn when the attackers render all electronic and digital equipment useless — vehicles, cell phones, computers — EVERYTHING on which mankind depends for their daily communication, their very existence. In their attempt to escape, the man and woman are tragically killed…yet, these colossal masked humanoids, glimpsed briefly through the windshield of the family’s car, spare the two boys — the teenaged Rafe, and his slight, younger brother, Gabriel.
Before flash-forwarding nine years to the future, a cryptic message surfaces from an unknown organization, warning what the city, and humankind, is about to endure — and what must be done to topple what will now become this new “captive state.”
Almost a decade later, in the year 2025, a flashing light flickers from the city’s signature skyscraper, at one time America’s tallest building — the Sears Tower, now situated in a walled-off part of the city known as the “closed zone.” Not unlike Iraq’s Green Zone, or Germany’s defunct Berlin Wall, the “closed zone,” immense in scale, has been erected by this suppressive force as a downtown fortress where they hide underground from the city’s populace, many of whom have never laid eyes on the extraterrestrials. This citadel also protects the skyscraper from outside attack.
The beacon atop the Sears Tower beams all day, every day over the decimated cityscape. Its purpose — surveillance, monitoring every living being (now with data chips surgically installed in their necks) while thrusting humankind’s technologically-dependent society back into the dark ages. Almost a decade later, every electronic and telecommunications device continues to be completely obsolete. There is no contact with the outside world.
Chicago, a derelict city, now frozen in time, is under the rule of martial law governed from the shadows by two different ranks of alien beings — Legislators, who rule; and Hunters, seven-foot mercenaries, who enforce.
Wyatt propels his story through the eyes of the two surviving siblings. Gabriel, now 20, works a mundane factory job during the day while dealing in a black-market data chip enterprise with a friend at night, illegally pilfering and peddling all sorts of digital files (pictures, music) from before the invasion. His older brother Rafe, 24, has become a phantom-like figure whom Gabriel hasn’t seen in four years, a span of time in which the elder sibling had been rumored to be dead. After their parents’ death, the older boy helped raise his younger brother until abandoning him for the greater good — his recruitment into a ragged band of insurgents bent on overthrowing the occupation.
Ultimately, the brothers find each other and Gabriel discovers that Rafe has been living as an underground fugitive called “The Phoenix,” one of a small gang of dissidents who leads the charge to subvert the alien outsiders by plotting to bomb the Sears Tower and destroy the surveillance device atop the skyscraper, which sits a third of a mile up in the sky. If successful, contact could be restored to the outside world.
In addition to skirting the occupying forces at hand, the revolutionaries must also dodge local law enforcement, many of whom chose to collaborate with the alien occupation. One such was a career cop named William Mulligan, a stoic professional conflicted by his duty and pledge to the badge and his loyalty to his late partner, the siblings’ father killed in the invasion.
Torn between a paternalistic compassion for the two young men and his mission to unravel the insurgents’ plot, Mulligan closely monitors Gabriel’s movements, hoping he will unwittingly lead him to his older brother, who now subscribes to a doctrine that the cop cannot, or will not, embrace —
To exist is to resist!
Wyatt found inspiration for his original storyline and script (which he co-wrote with his wife, screenwriter Beeney) in the works of two renowned European filmmakers — France’s Jean-Pierre Melville (1967’s Le Samouraï, 1969’s Army of Shadows) and Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo (1967’s Oscar®-nominated Battle of Algiers).
“One of my favorite filmmakers is French director Jean-Pierre Melville,” Wyatt states. “He made films primarily in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He was a member of the French Resistance during the war. So, for his entire career, he wanted to tell stories about raging against the machine, fighting against an occupying power.
“Melville made a film at the end of his career called Army of Shadows, which is this amazing, epic, character-driven piece of work,” he continues. “Classically, quintessentially French in so many ways, but shot like a noir film. It was a huge inspiration for this, as was another film, Battle of Algiers. I tried to portray elements of both in a science fiction context, with its footprints in the United States.”
Star John Goodman notes: “Rupert compared his story to the French Underground, the Resistance, in World War II, and I liked that take on it. I always admired those people because they were one step away from death all the time. Literally. For the sake of freedom. This story speaks to the idea of what we’re willing to sacrifice for our own personal peace of mind, our own sense of freedom.” Goodman previously worked with Wyatt following his co-starring role in the 2014 drama, The Gambler.
Producer Crockett who, like Goodman, also reunites with the director after having produced his last feature, The Gambler, adds: “Rupert loves history and stories of insurgencies and revolutionaries. I think this story had been knocking around in his head for quite a while. It took him time to figure out who the occupying force would be. Once he settled on the fact that this force, the bad guy, was going to be extraterrestrials, aliens, the story took off from there. And, one of the most interesting and engaging things about the story to me posed the question, ‘what are you willing to do for freedom?’
“What happens if your rights were taken away by this huge occupying force?” Crockett continues. “Would you just sit by and live-and-let-live, let it happen, or would you be somebody who takes a stand? I think this story really explores that without making a judgment one way or the other. I don’t think anybody really knows how they would react to a situation like this until it happens.”
“I also think Captive State fits in well with Participant Media’s body of work because it not only tells a great story, but also addresses issues that the world faces today,” Crockett adds about his producing partners, Participant Media’s Jeff Skoll and Jonathan King. Participant Media, the leading media company dedicated to entertainment that inspires audiences to engage in positive social change, has made such award-wining content as Oscar® Best Picture winners Spotlight and Green Book, as well as ROMA and A Fantastic Woman (Academy Award® winners for Best Foreign Language Film) and An Inconvenient Truth and CITIZENFOUR (Best Documentary Feature Oscar® winners).
“Our story’s set nine years in the future, and because of the way these aliens are mining our resources, pillaging the planet, they’re starting to have a negative effect on our world,” Crockett continues about the script’s topicality. “Whereas the film is set in the summer, it feels very much like a winter landscape. There is the issue of climate change, very subtly portrayed in the story. The film has a social conscience in asking questions like ‘what are our responsibilities to humanity? What are our responsibilities to the planet?’”
Wyatt had similar sentiments about collaborating with Participant Media, calling it “that rare media company — all the better for it — that has incredible ambition in terms of the storytelling that they seek out and support. Films and stories that shine a light on our world in an entertaining way, but also in a challenging and inspirational way. So, for a filmmaker to have the opportunity to collaborate with people like that is a very rare and enjoyable luxury.”
Participant Media’s Jonathan King, who serves as executive producer on the film, describes what interested the company in working with Wyatt: “Rupert excels at building worlds filled with suspense, intrigue and innovative action. With Captive State, Rupert continues his exploration of control, oppression and resistance that began with The Escapist and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Like all good science fiction, this movie offers a way to look at our own circumstances through a unique lens.”
Wyatt adds: “The deal all came together very quickly. You have an idea, you write a script, somebody says they want to finance it and you make it. Done! That has never happened in my life and may never happen again. The momentum of writing it, then taking it to Participant Media, who immediately got behind it and wanted to make the movie, was swift.”
Without tipping his hand to metaphors of the current White House administration, Wyatt chimes in saying, “It’s about the choices we make in life. It’s about the idea of being confronted with moral choices that are vital to your livelihood, your own personal safety and that of your family. How we, as people, respond to that individually. And, we have two casts of characters, in many ways, in this story. Those who have chosen to collaborate with the occupiers, and those who have chosen to fight back. The story is very much about the two sides of that one coin. Especially family, which I’ve tried to observe very keenly here, through the experiences of these two brothers.”
“But we’re not trying to cast the collaborators in an overt, negative light,” he emphasizes. “We depict why they’re doing it, as we also do with the resistance fighters, via their use of violence to fight back. In this day and age, that is a notion that obviously is very sensitive. But, when you look at history and you think of the Algerians who fought against the French during the occupation of Algeria, like Pontecorvo portrayed in his movie, or the Nazi occupation of France, you could cast those resistance fighters in a heroic mold. But, in the eyes of many, they were also terrorists. So, from a storytelling point-of-view, that’s an interesting gray area worth exploring.”
“Ultimately, the story deals with oppression,” Wyatt concludes. “Living in a society where freedom is gone. We take that for granted in so many ways, and we’re fortunate to have it. What I’ve tried to do with these themes of democracy and oppression, which are very rich and complex but not necessarily ‘entertainment’, is to smuggle them in through what is essentially, and what I hope will be, an entertaining science fiction film.”