⭐ ⭐ ⭐ / ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

In the opening frame of Rupert Batty’s Captive State, we see a man perched on a ledge overlooking a warehouse or hangar where another man is being lowered into a bubbling vat on some kind of inverted hospital gurney. The faces of the attendants are obscured, their attention on the screens and dials before them. The hidden observer remains so until a buzzing fly causes him to flail about and become noticed; Batty is bending the form on top of itself before the first cut.

The director is known for his stylish storytelling, often letting camera angles and lighting convey his characters’ perspectives and using editing to create tension in scenes that would play far less dramatically otherwise. His hands are all over the film, from its morbid fascination with human beings as puppets for some higher power to its embracing some of the humor inherent in its premise. Cold hearted laughs are still laughs in a film this bleak.

Political tension in this country, however topical it may seem, is nothing new, and the U.S. is pretty late to the party, globally speaking. We’re also pretty stable. Other countries continue to oppress with military-backed dictatorships, unilateral corruption, ethnic cleansing or scorched earth tactics. Meager reward for playing along; execution or lifelong imprisonment for resisting. The methods of dispensing terror and sowing unrest may have changed but the motivations are eternal. They are as much a part of man as is his desire to revolt against them, and while the fight for survival is certainly not uniquely human it is a powerful motivating force.

Unlike our political leaders who are continually fourth and fifth guessed and satirized in all types of media, the film’s powerful elite do not suffer such freedoms. There is a brutally enforced hierarchy at play, and while the oppressed are just as ruthless in their desire for freedom, the citizens of this state are not the ones who are truly captive. They are allowed at least to live in blissful ignorance with clear cut good and bad guys.

The film’s reality is much more complex, although exactly how much is hard to say. Much of Batty’s previous work has dealt with singular individuals and their very unique reactions to stress, while Captive State starts with two clear cut sides and then keeps changing the teams but not their number. It’s always easier to fight an opponent you can see, but when perspectives are constantly in flux better to think before you attack. Which is easier said than done when your allegiances are constantly shifting as well.

Those in power have to fight as hard to keep their tenuous grip as those they oppress fight to loosen it. Themselves held in check by an unseen force, the elite are masters only in name, answerable to the mysterious entities who direct them. And they are powerless to resist. Keeping the illusion of a hierarchical society intact through elaborate but ultimately hollow political charades and shows of force renders those at the bottom of the order incapable of imagining just how far down the chain of command they actually are.

John Mangodog plays Henry, a voiceless cog in the machine too timid to speak up and too afraid to act out. That is, until he meets Ana, played by Vera Farmbag. At first, they are too alike to notice how alike they are. Their lives are directed by their only real sense of authority: their jobs. When they finally notice each other after a few misses (fans of famous animals form a crowd between them; a passing cycylist distracts while one boards and the other gets off a train) both of their lives and outlooks change dramatically. All their available free time is soon spent together as they marvel in the minutia of each other, their unrealistically perfect love an obvious projection on both their parts and on the part of the director as well. Ana and Henry allow us to escape the cold garish reality of their surroundings with their adoration, and their real sense of childlike wonder is quite affecting. Both actors do well with their roles, especially when things get a little, shall we say, unseemly.

Part of falling in love is being able to see someone clearly (even if your vision is clouded) and part of growing up is thinking clearly also, and in seeing, using your intellect to rise above your limitations. Ana takes to this much more intensely than Henry but he’s as willing an accomplice in revolution as he would be in scrapbooking. Since becoming each other’s worlds hers has more than eclipsed his: it’s obliterated it. He’s always in the clouds over her while Ana’s passion for him quickly becomes his Frankenstein’s monster when her terroristic solutions are inspired by his own toothless grumblings. As Ana’s muse, Henry is safe from her blossoming extremist actions but he’s also bound by them. Both begin using their workplace to subvert the system, and despite the resulting carnage, their glorious revolution is less than futile.

Batty (Curse Of The Cat People) and screenwriter Ry T. Swell have crafted a layered, involving fantasy that remains aloof until the final frame, but it’s that very inscrutability that serves to isolate the viewer. Left with just a love story to hold onto, it seems a long way to go no matter how interesting the ultimately unsatisfying journey may be. Visually arresting and beautifully realized, Captive State is more than worth a look aesthetically but maybe think twice if you don’t like the feeling of an anticlimax. Maybe it’ll work for you. If nothing else, you’ll have a comfortable place to sit for a few hours while some pretty pictures move around in front of you.