'Captive State' Director Rupert Wyatt: Sci-Fi Allows Us to Hold Up a Mirror

How the director of 'Captive State' envisioned a bleak future that isn't too far off from our own.

Rupert Wyatt didn’t grow up in America, but he’s fascinated by her story. Born and raised in the south of England, where he learned to make movies from his Super 8 camera, the filmmaker gave a lot of thought about what it means to spark a revolution against oppressive forces, especially capitalism and greed, which are on full display in his new poli-sci-fi movie Captive State.

“It’s the ‘rage against the machine’ story,” Wyatt tells Inverse. “It’s about what it means to be under occupation, and the moral obligations or choices one has to make when they’re put in that place of compromise at the risk of family, career, livelihood. gWhat is it that makes those who choose to take a stand? I’ve long been fascinated by that.”

In Captive State, which opens in theaters on Friday, alien invaders enslave the world’s governments under the guise of unity. In reality, the aliens, called “Legislators,” are strip-mining the planet for resources, spurring dramatic climate change.

To keep humans on a leash, the aliens grant power to a privileged few, which sows discord among the surviving humans of every major city. These events soon lead Gabriel (Ashton Sanders), who was just a boy when the aliens arrived, and a Chicago cop-turned-Legislator lackey named Mulligan (John Goodman), to conspire in a complicated partnership marked by betrayal and secrets.

The film is the latest picture to illustrate Wyatt’s fascination with oppression and resistance. Between crime dramas like 2008’s The Escapist and 2014’s The Gambler, Wyatt’s treatises about revolution are made clear in his films like 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes — the reboot prequel to the sci-fi series about a dystopian Earth ruled by intelligent apes — and in the pilot for AMC’s historical drama, Turn: Washington’s Spies, a period thriller set in the midst of the American Revolutionary War.

For Captive State, which was co-written with Erica Beeney, Wyatt wanted to think differently. The two sought to occupy a space between science-fiction and hardcore realism.

“We plugged it into the future,” he says. “We thought, if that future is tangible and relatable to us, and society hasn’t changed that much other than the few explicit undoings, then that’s something a modern audience can really understand broadly than, say, a movie about the American Revolution.”

John Goodman as Mulligan and Ashton Sanders as Gabriel in Rupert Wyatt's 'Captive State.'

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The starting point for the story was when a society was already under occupation. From there, they just had to find the best way to begin that story.

History’s full of such accounts. “If you look at 20th century history, the mass occupation of France for example, we looked at all sorts of references and came at it from the place of what would be the most interesting and contemporary way to tell this story. I really was intrigued by, how do I put this in the footprint of America? What it means to be a freedom fighter in America fighting against the collaborated government, or in the eyes of the government, to be a terrorist.”

The aliens of Captive State, which when revealed on screen take on an insect-like appearance with a distinctly grating “buzzing” sound, was inspired by the behavior of wasps and bees.

“I saw an interesting documentary about wasps attacking a hive, and how bees sacrifice themselves to save the hive,” Wyatt says. “I thought, what a great analogy for what’s going on in the film and how we are fighting back.”

Wyatt is quick to point out that he’s not “a political filmmaker,” but it’s hard to ignore parallels between a totalitarian state, ruled by a political outsider who suppresses free speech, to some of the right-wing nationalism that’s resurfaced in the United States and abroad.

“I’m coming at this from being a liberal, than somebody who is right-wing, but I see stories on a human level,” he says.

Work on Captive State began before Donald Trump took office, but it’s no coincidence that his film’s alien invasion begins “circa 2016.”

“Questions of civil liberties and checks and balances, those questions I think are wholly relevant and should be asked in a democracy. But we aren’t making a polemic,” Wyatt says. “That wasn’t our intention. Those who have a right-wing or libertarian sensibility will see aspects of this film in a light they choose to, as will those with a left-wing sensibility.”

The director is adamant that his film is about unchecked capitalism and how it can quite literally damage the planet. “I will say, [this film] is very much about our environment, our planet,” he says. “The notion that protecting this planet, and not falling prey to the idea that big businesses and capitalism should pursue our interests, that is really important.”

Earlier drafts of Captive State reveal that the film takes place during a summer in Chicago. The material that plainly pointed this out were left on the cutting room floor, but the film’s winter-y temperature (the film was shot on location over a nine-week period in the winter of 2017) illustrates the abuse the planet has suffered under the Legislators.

“That’s what the collaborative government is doing,” Wyatt explains. “They’re allowing the planet to be strip-mined for the few rather than the long-term health of the many.”

“I like films that ask questions of our political times,” adds Wyatt. “Sci-fi is great because it allows you to hold a mirror up to the society we live in, and at the same time, give a degree of separation that allows a very large audience to come at it from many perspectives. I think that’s what makes it a relevant genre in today’s storytelling, and very useful to tell stories that ask pertinent questions about who we are. Ever time I’ve gone into the world of sci-fi I’ve come at it from that place.”

Captive State hits theaters on March 16.

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