"Captive State" director Rupert Wyatt on sci-fi, commercial failure and the age of Trump

Rupert Wyatt on his "failure," an alien-invasion thriller that captures something essential about this moment

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published April 28, 2019 2:00PM (EDT)

Colson Baker and Ashton Sanders in "Captive State" (Parrish Lewis/Focus Features)
Colson Baker and Ashton Sanders in "Captive State" (Parrish Lewis/Focus Features)

Science fiction is much more than stories about aliens and robots or alternate dimensions, exotic technology and space travel. It is a genre of storytelling that is uniquely well-positioned for social and political commentary because of the way it suspends disbelief by challenging our assumptions about the nature of reality and what is ultimately real and possible. To that end some of the most powerful science fiction stories take some aspect of the "real world" and tweak and adjust it so that it becomes different while also being all too familiar.

The recent film "Captive State" -- which came and went far more quickly than it deserved -- is one such example. On the surface it is a conventional story about an alien invasion of Earth and what life would be like under the newcomers' totalitarian regime. But "Captive State" is so much more. It is a commentary on social equality; race, class, gender, sexuality and our common humanity; and all the many ways that "regular people" and not fantastical heroes lead our freedom struggles.

What is the role and obligation of science fiction writers and other creators in times of political turmoil and despair? Why is science fiction such a powerful narrative device for speaking "truth to power"? In what ways is "Captive State" a commentary on the age of Trump and the rise of right-wing authoritarianism around the world? What is Wyatt suggesting about "representation" and "inclusion" through this movie? Why did he choose to tell a character-driven alien invasion film as opposed to a more traditional Hollywood-style science fiction story?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Wyatt, the director and co-writer (along with Erica Beeney) of "Captive State." Wyatt also directed the 2011 film "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. If you plan to see the movie (which is well worth it), I caution you that it contains some plot spoilers.

I live in Chicago and have seen "Captive State," which is set here, several times. The movie was well received by my fellow moviegoers. But after reading the reviews for the film I was not sure what movie the critics saw, but it was quite different than the one I did. Was this a story of wildly divergent expectations? 

It's been frustrating of course, one would like to have had a better result. That said, I was very pleased to see certain responses, both critically and audience-wise, where people enjoyed the film. In this day and age, in terms of mainstream genre filmmaking, to do something that perhaps was more observational than emotive was not going to be embraced by everyone. That's fair enough. Each to their own. But in "Captive State" we were trying to be more character-driven, to use our characters to plot our journey through the world. "Captive State" is perhaps a bit more of an espionage thriller than a out-and-out science fiction film and some people may have perhaps gotten confused by that.

This movie is also not simple escapism. Given all of the stress and tumult and anxiety in the world with Donald Trump, rising authoritarianism, terrorism, hate crimes and so many other bad things, perhaps the harsh truth of "Captive State" was too much for some moviegoers?

I would definitely agree with that. I think that we go through periods in society where, for example, during the Great Depression musicals were the most popular genre of films. And what are the two most popular genres of films in America today? Musicals and horror.

During the Great Depression the horror genre hadn't yet found its footing yet but there were movies such as "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." We're not living in a time period where people necessarily want to leave their homes and feel unsafe. So perhaps "Captive State" will ultimately find its audience later with people watching it at home.

This movie rewards deep viewing. Audiences will come back to it repeatedly because of the deft and careful way you created that version of our reality.

The movie is definitely a kind of Chinese puzzle box. We tried to explore things visually, to put little details and imagery in the scenes, choices where everything served a purpose. The intention was to not be arbitrary in any way. I think this speaks to the greater success or failure of "Captive State." I'm asking the audience to pay attention, to lean in, and the work that they do there in processing the film and engaging with the story will pay dividends by the end. That investment of time and energy and concentration will hopefully result in greater satisfaction. That is a risky proposition in terms of mainstream cinema because, quite rightly and understandably, people want to put their feet up, they want to kick back and be taken along for the ride, rather than perhaps being up front behind the wheel.

What feelings or emotions were you trying to provoke in the audience? How did you want them to feel?

I never really set out to consider that. For me it's always about telling the best story possible in the most concise and complete way. But if I had to reflect on it, by the end of "Captive State" it is the understanding that there is a hero in all of us. Again, going counter to mainstream Hollywood and franchise moviemaking, that those who are heroes among us are very ordinary and in many ways quite mundane people.

William Mulligan, who is John Goodman's character, and Ashton Sanders' character Gabriel Drummond are regular, everyday people. They don't have superpowers. They don't have extraordinary abilities or insights into things. They're seeing everything from only their perspective. Yet both of them are fundamental to the survival of the human race in this extraordinary high-stakes drama where we are under alien occupation.

My hope with "Captive State" was that the audience would come away from this movie seeing things a little bit differently in their day-to-day lives. That is exciting to me.

What is the role of science fiction in this social and political moment?

Science fiction is a great way to put a mirror on today's society in a way that is entertaining and visually impactful as well as being cinematic. Science fiction as often considered by an audience, filmmakers and other storytellers as well, views our future as being dystopian. "Captive State" is dystopian because the human race is under occupation by an authoritarian regime. Captive State may present a utopia of sorts for the collaborators but not for the people who are the center of this film, those on the margins of society. The opportunity to use science fiction to tell the story of today by pivoting into the near future, while also creating a rich mythology for the world we created, hopefully allows audiences to see themes that they would not otherwise necessarily embrace.

What is the filmic DNA of "Captive State"? There are some obvious influences, such as [the classic French Resistance thriller] "Army of Shadows" but what were some of the other ones?

The idea of telling a political espionage thriller story and then pivoting it into the near-future came about ultimately because I wanted to tell the story of a nation, city or society under occupation and I wanted to do it here in America. With that in mind, I did not want to delve deep into America's history and tell the story of the American revolution against the British or anything akin to that. I was thinking, 'Well, if I'm going to do this in a reflective and relevant way to today's audience then I need to go into the future." The movie became science fiction by virtue of that fact.

From that point on, I started to ask questions: "OK, what is an authoritarian government likely to do if it found itself in a position of power and control in this country?" Once the checks and balances of our democracy have been removed, once mainstream protest and resistance have been successfully put down, and once the police have been empowered with laws that remove almost any restraint on their actions, what will that world look like?

How are the aliens and the authoritarian government they put in power going to accomplish this? They are going to expand surveillance. They're going to do that by way of drones. They are going to remove our ability to communicate and act subversively so that means that the internet and other digital technology are going to be highly restricted, like in North Korea or Iran. "Captive State" is science fiction in terms of the context of present day America, but it is not particularly far-fetched relative to other places around the world.

"Captive State" is not meant to be a polemic. I was not trying to make a movie that is a commentary on modern-day America -- but certainly those questions are relevant to today in this country. It is the role of science fiction to ask hard questions about society.

"Independence Day" is an alien invasion film that was born of the end of the Cold War and this false belief in global American triumphalism and the"end of history." But in Captive State there is no jingoistic American exceptionalism moment. The United States is beaten and occupied. This is likely another reason why some people may have found the movie so unsettling and ultimately not entertaining in the way they wanted. In "Captive State," most Americans have surrendered to the alien invaders. The historical record shows that this is actually what happens in most invasions and subsequent occupations.

That is a very important point, one that is not always properly served in a movie like "Independence Day" or the recent "Terminator" movies and similar science fiction films. Most freedom fighters are from the margins of society. They have the least to lose and that's the point. If you look at the French Resistance, they were Communist railroad workers, common criminals, all fighting under this flag of freedom. They were the heroes of France, in terms of how history sees it. And it's the same when a person is fighting an occupation in the Middle East. We of course as a Western society look upon this as "terrorism" but there are other people who would look at it as fighting for one's freedom. The real world is not this easy binary of good and evil, as some would like to make it out to be.

And that's what I was trying to explore in "Captive State." What if everyday Americans, hiding in plain sight, were the cornerstone of a very marginalized resistance? Who are these resistance fighters? Are they going to be ex-Catholic priests, because religion has been banned by the occupiers? Are they going to be those people whose sexual orientation has been made illegal and therefore their community has been pushed underground? Is it going to be ex-soldiers, much like what happened in Iraq when the Baath party was removed from power and the Iraqi army was demobilized?

This is a very delicate and sensitive subject to explore. In the case of "Captive State" it is a full-fledged occupation. Now, I am not relating an alien invasion and occupation of Earth to what has taken place in the Middle East. But at the same time, if you consider how a society would deal with an occupation, the vast majority of people, because they have bank accounts and families, don't want to lose their jobs and will keep their heads down. Most people will basically say, "We have too much to lose. We need to just live and survive." Those on the outside of society, on the margins of society, are going to be the ones who fight back. As a filmmaker that is really interesting to me.

You have more black and brown folks on the screen, as a percentage of time, in "Captive State" than almost any mainstream Hollywood movie in recent memory. But the movie is not being discussed in terms of that overused and tired phrase "representation." Chicago is one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States. But in "Captive State" it is an interracial alliance of people, working-class and poor, straight and gay, male and female, fighting back in their own way. That is a very powerful statement about our shared humanity.

I'm glad you noticed that aspect of "Captive State." I'm a white, privileged, middle-class, middle-aged English guy. So all I was attempting to do was stay true to Chicago and this country. I'm a first-generation immigrant to this country, I love this country, I love everything it stands for. I see its problems. I see the divisions. I also understand America's history. "Captive State" represents a hopeful side to this story which is, in the face of a common enemy, that we as a society which is very tribal in so many ways, could unite under one flag in a time of shared struggle and resistance.

So it was a great opportunity to make a film that is not a commentary on racial divisions per se, but in fact quite the opposite. "Captive State" is about racial and social unity. And to get the opportunity to do that seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up. That is actually one of the first choices I made when Erica Beeney and I were writing the script. We made the Drummonds an African-American family. We made that choice very early on because we just felt it was wholly appropriate and relevant.

The world-building is very rich and deliberate. There is the use of analog technology such as pay phones and dial-up modems, all religion is banned, the secret police grab people off the street and put them in vans labeled "Agriculture Department." Your use of a cult-like worship of the aliens, while banning Earth's great religions, is a particularly sharp move in terms of the narrative. How did you make that latter decision?

There is actually a very tiny glimpse of what we called "The Acolytes" in the film. There was an albino actor who was standing in the center of Soldier Field with his arms outstretched, looking to the skies. In writing the movie we came up with an idea that there is a kind of religious-like cult which worships the moment of first contact and what happened afterward. This cult, of course, is totally political and for the benefit of the occupiers. Every other aspect of historical religion we removed. In an early version of the opening credits there was the dynamiting of churches and other holy places. There is historical precedent: Under [military dictator Augusto] Pinochet, the Chilean Catholic church was completely marginalized and the priests were treated without mercy.

There were quite a few scenes that ultimately didn't make the movie because we needed to stay true to the engine of the plot, which was infiltrating the Closed Zone by way of Trojan horse and always pushing towards that moment. There was a fair amount of world-building that in a 10-hour TV show would be there for sure.

In terms of main characters and relationships, there is John Goodman as William Mulligan and then Vera Farmiga as "Jane Doe". What does the resistance cost them? Is Mulligan a hero or a villain? Both?

I think first and foremost with John we decided this is a man who believes in law and order, that was always his way of being in the world. He and his partner, Gabriel, were police before the occupation and believe in upholding the law. They both came from the same community that we tell our story in. They are both blue-collar, working-class cops who are good people. They have good families and Mulligan finds himself on the wrong side of history. Goodman's character is in a corrupt, morally compromised, vicious, violent criminal organization. Mulligan has probably seen many bad and horrific things happen on his watch and so he's wearing that moral twilight on his shoulders and across his face at all times and in many ways. His redemption lies in the realization of that fact.

And that starts to come about when Goodman reunites with Vera Farmiga's character Jane Doe. Who she was before the occupation is very different than who she is post-first contact, which is a prostitute in a high-class brothel which services government employees and the cops. One day this person whom she has a past with walks through her door, and that's the moment when the ticking clock of our story begins. It is their agreement to right the wrongs of this world. That becomes the story of "Captive State."

What might happen next with this world? A sequel? Comic books and graphic novels? A TV series?

Sadly, I think we're somewhat licking our wounds with the initial response to the movie. But we're hopeful and optimistic based on responses from people like you and others to realize there really is a cult of appreciation for this film. I think over time that may grow. I think people's expectations for this film bewildered them when it turned out to be something that they didn't expect. And that's not to shirk responsibility for when one of my movies doesn't work. Sometimes that happens. But my hope is that people come to this movie in the future with no expectations for what they expected in terms of an "alien invasion movie" -- and that will be all the better for "Captive State" itself.

I do think there's a graphic novel to be done, for sure. We just need somebody to give me a call and say they want to do it with me. But I'd be definitely up for that. I love graphic novels. I also enjoy long-form television, so who knows? Maybe there could be a Netflix TV series or some other home for "Captive State."

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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