There’s an awful lot going on in Rupert Wyatt’s Captive State. But if you like quality with your quantity, you’re shit outta luck.
Captive State feels like nothing quite so much as an entire television series edited down to feature length. After an almost unbelievably lengthy and largely text-based prologue, the film drops us into an America (specifically, a Chicago) that’s been successfully invaded by aliens. The governments of Earth, having surrendered before a superior force, are collaborators, and the people ruled with martial law - or sent underground to work for the Legislators’ (as so they’re called) nefarious and mysterious ends. There’s a resistance, of course - and it is that resistance we follow, in an urban-warfare sort of way.
As for the characters in this resistance: I could not tell you who this movie is principally about. John Goodman plays a Chicago cop tasked with rooting out the resistance members. Ashton Sanders (Moonlight) seems to be the protagonist at first, playing the younger brother of the resistance’s mythic-hero leader, but he’s sidelined for massive swathes of the movie. A whole squad of rebels simply appears in the story and exits it without any fanfare whatsoever. Elsewhere, actors like Vera Farmiga, Kevin Dunn, Cam’s Madeline Brewer, and Alan Ruck (amongst a sea of strong character actors) are reduced to cameos. It genuinely feels like these people were meant to be woven in and out of a ten-hour narrative. Instead, it’s all crammed into less than two. No introductions. No development. Just faces upon faces.
The film’s plot is as murky as its characters. A number of plotlines are mentioned and abandoned; most involve blowing up one thing or another, some involve getting into the aliens’ underworld, and almost none are followed up upon. No central goal is ever clarified; the narrative simply follows a series of disconnected episodes, none ever grabbing the audience. Story turns arrive unheralded and unmarked. Even the final big twist hits with the weight of a Ziplog bag full of feathers.
Even the dystopia at the centre of the film is underwhelming. Coming from Wyatt, whose Rise of the Planet of the Apes was not only excellent but kicked off a similarly-excellent franchise, it’s astonishing how uneven the world-building is here. For a movie about rebelling against a dystopia, we never really get to see much of that dystopia. We see some alien technology, some really intriguing alien and ship designs, and some drone footage (a lot of drone footage), but never once does the film illuminate what it’s actually like to live in this world. We experience it solely through the eyes of one police officer and a group of rebels; what they’re fighting to stop, or save, we’ll never know. The greatest political depth you’ll find here is that fascism is bad. That's simply taken as read; we never really see what makes it bad.
None of this is helped by the film’s production value. Set mostly on dirty city streets and in dirty apartments, the film has a small visual scale that never expands, other than one brief sequence in a sports stadium that’s over practically before it begins. The camerawork, handheld and coverage-focused, is utterly uninspiring. Visual effects are kept to a minimum, to the extent that the film deliberately avoids depicting any of the actually-interesting concepts it introduces in dialogue.
I would put money on Captive State having been cut down from a much longer narrative. The storytelling is that fractured; the character and worldbuilding work that scattershot. That might not have been an issue if the story it told was compelling - there have been plenty of breathlessly-edited films that crammed a good story into their two hours - but this story is not. It’s noise without structure, movement without direction, plot without story.
Rupert Wyatt is better than this. The dystopia genre and the alien invasion genre are better than this. So why isn’t Captive State better than this? Maybe the answer lies deep underground in the aliens’ lair: oft-talked-about, and never-ever-seen.