Updated: Feb 8, 2020
Captive State is a cross between sci-fi and an espionage thriller. It takes place nine years after a hostile alien takeover, focusing on an effort by an underground cell in Chicago to get a measure of revenge on their captors. It is very slow-moving, with tons of characters (that it sometimes misplaces) and a complex world. That world is never explored in a way that adds clarity to the story. It is an ambitious idea, far too loaded for its own good. The filmmakers stuffed so much in, but failed to include depth. While some of the smaller, personal moments are alright, the overall movie is too scattered to be as clever as it thinks it is.
It is a little hard to do a quick synopsis, but I will try. Gabriel’s father was killed by the aliens at the beginning of the invasion. His brother, Rafe, is presumed dead after an attempted assault on their ship. He is struggling to survive while working clandestinely with the resistance. Agent Mulligan, the former partner of Gabriel’s late father, believes Rafe is still alive and wants to use Gabriel to ferret him out. Meanwhile, the resistance is planning a major attack. Things get significantly more complicated than that, though I could not always follow individual stories.
Captive State (105 minutes without the end credits) does not have just one protagonist. It has three along with several important supporting characters. That is okay, however none of them really stand on their own. They are basically all plot devices. This is a story more about its world than those who people it. Yet that world is left too vague for this approach to be successful. The screenplay (by Erica Beeney and director Rupert Wyatt) never directly addresses what life is like with the aliens running things. Besides, obviously, that it is bad. The humans live in slums and are constantly being tracked by government agents who are working as collaborators with the invaders. That is nearly all we learn. The allegories it is trying to make are fairly clear. Sadly, nothing compelling is done with them.
Oddly, for a movie centered on an alien takeover, the aliens are not engaged with beyond what they represent. They are the oppressors. They are shown a few times, including the opening scene (they are large, ugly, horror movie creatures, that seem mainly made-up of needles), but they are not given personality or motivation. This is a pretty interesting direction to take, creating a sci-fi premise and using it to tell a politically-inspired spy story instead of one focused on action. I was not upset by the lack of monsters, though a little extra detail in the setup would have made it easier to care about what happens to the characters.
That is the biggest problem with Captive State. There is so much going on and not sufficient time spent making any of it connect for the audience. Everything does eventually make sense, but the path to that did not keep my interest. John Goodman is actually quite good as the obsessed Mulligan. Good enough that I wanted to know way more about him. For the purpose of preserving final act surprises, the movie holds back on character backstories until the end. Everyone is just a chess piece that can be moved around the board at will. If the world were vivid, or the story really intriguing, that would be forgivable. But it is a solid idea buried under disappointing execution.
2¼ out of 5
Ashton Sanders as Gabriel Drummond
John Goodman as William Mulligan
Jonathan Majors as Rafe Drummond
James Ransone as Patrick Ellison
Alan Ruck as Charles Rittenhouse
Vera Farmiga as Jane Doe
Kevin Dunn as Commissioner Eugene Igoe
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Written by Erica Beeney and Rupert Wyatt