Captive State makes an admirable attempt to buck genre conventions, but the resulting film is a muddled and otherwise incoherent sci-fi allegory.
By this point, filmmaker Rupert Wyatt has developed something of a reputation for making genre movies with a high-art sensibility; even his most successful mainstream offering, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was considered a mold-breaker that paved the way for similarly thought-provoking franchise reboots. That trend continues with Captive State, an original alien invasion thriller that Wyatt directed and co-wrote with his wife and fellow filmmaker, Erica Beeney. Unfortunately, in this case, Wyatt was unable to realize the full extent of his ambitious vision for the project. Captive State makes an admirable attempt to buck genre conventions, but the resulting film is a muddled and otherwise incoherent sci-fi allegory.
The film drops viewers right into the middle of the action, as present-day earth is invaded by extraterrestrials that seek to occupy our world. Over the nine years that follow, the governments of the world form a treaty with the aliens and allow them to exploit the planet's resources (which resources, admittedly, are never entirely specified), in return for their help in creating a supposedly "unified" society. Much like Neill Blomkamp's District 9, Captive State is based on a premise that's a clear-cut parable for real world issues (in this case, American imperialism) and taps into present-day concerns about government surveillance and the growing economic divide between the ultra-wealthy and everyone else. Unlike that film though, Wyatt's sci-fi thriller embraces a fairly untraditional narrative structure.
This is also where the movie starts running into problems. Much like Wyatt's prison escape thriller, The Escapist, Captive State splinters its narrative off into multiple plot threads, in an attempt to explore its setting from a variety of perspectives - namely, those of local Chicagoan Gabriel Drummond (Ashton Sanders), police official William Mulligan (John Goodman), and the members of a rebel group known as the Phoenix, which includes Gabriel's brother Rafe (Jonathan Majors). It's a challenging juggling act that Captive State struggles to keep up, as the film continuously jumps from one storyline to another with little apparent rhyme or reason. Characters vanish for long periods of screen time along the way, making it all the more difficult to tell who's actually meant to be important and who's just a throwaway supporting player (and there end up being a lot of those). It's an intriguing, but sadly ineffective way to explore what life is like under "foreign" occupation.
To its credit, Captive State (mostly) avoids burdening viewers with exposition dumps and leaves it to them to make sense of the film's relatively grounded sci-fi setting. Wyatt and his cinematographer Alex Disenhof (who also worked together on The Exorcist TV series) further employ a blend of rough handheld photography, security camera footage, and murky colors to make audiences feel like they're watching a documentary about life in this post-invasion reality. Still, the film is guilty of actually under-explaining how this setting works and why the presence of these aliens - bizarre other-worldly beings with protruding spikes all over and brutal abilities - has widened the wealth gap and seemingly rendered modern communication technology (like the internet) obsolete. That's to say, the world-building is a pretty mixed bag overall and offers a vision of a dystopian future that's more jumbled than engaging.
Captive State eventually tries to tie everything together during its third act, in particular with a scene that drops a whole lot of important character details and information on viewers all at once. While it's interesting how the film holds some major details back and allows viewers to try and piece together what's really been going on up to that point, anyone who pays attention to the movie's heavy foreshadowing should have little trouble predicting its climactic twists. The larger issue is that Captive State's grand reveals offer less insight into its characters than it seems to believe they do, and fail to develop the film's nods to real-world horrors (like government-backed torture) into meaningful themes. As such, the movie's main cast members - especially Vera Farmiga as the mysterious "Jane Doe" - end up feeling wasted here, even as they deliver what are otherwise fine performances.
Put simply, Captive State ultimately suffers the same fate as Wyatt's The Gambler remake and lands in an unsatisfying middle area between slick genre entertainment and semi-experimental arthouse cinema. As much as one respects the director's ambition, he's just not able to execute his big ideas and concepts in a cohesive fashion here. This also explains why Focus Features kept fiddling with the film's release date and, most recently, abruptly bumped it two weeks forward to premiere over a far less competitive weekend at the box office. Those who've really enjoyed Wyatt's previous films may find themselves more forgiving of Captive State's flaws and want to give it a look in theaters. As for everyone else: you're fine either skipping or saving this new addition to the alien invasion movie pile for another day.
Captive State is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 109 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, some sexual content, brief language and drug material.
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- Captive State (2019) release date: Mar 15, 2019