Distributed by Focus Features, Captive State is directed and co-written by Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Gambler) along with Erica Beeney. It stars Ashton Sanders, John Goodman, Jonathon Majors, and Vera Farmiga. The film tells the story of a dystopian near future, in which a hostile alien race invades the Earth, assumes control of all governments, and enslaves humanity. Phoenix, a band of rebels formerly led by fallen soldier Rafe Drummond (Majors) rises from the ashes to fight back against the seemingly peaceful alien rulers, and Rafe’s son Gabriel (Sanders) finds himself irreversibly swept up in the action by Chicago Police Officer William Mulligan (Goodman).
Captive State has a lot going for it: a talented cast and crew, a solid visual and narrative aesthetic, and an interesting premise rife with potential to explore the faith we bestow upon our leaders. It deeply saddens me, then, to report that the film misses nearly every opportunity to create something meaningful, original, or memorable. It fails to deliver on any of the promises it makes from the outset and winds up feeling like a wholly unrewarding chore to watch.
The trailers for Captive State (which I didn’t watch until after the movie) paint the picture of an exciting and rousing alien invasion movie, but this isn’t what the film really is, not in the slightest. The aliens are almost nowhere to be seen, in fact, and there’s never a good shot of them to take in, so Captive State is clearly designed to focus more on the characters…right? If that’s the case, someone must’ve missed an important step along the way, because there’s hardly any character or personality to speak of.
The plot is intricate and detailed, but too scattered to allow for any personal investment. With the way the film is edited, it even seems like the various subplots are grappling for the spotlight, judging by its extensive use of montage and narration. As a result, the story is actively difficult to follow, and this manages to additionally infect the visual style. I had thought that the days of unrelenting shaky cam were almost over (Michael Bay’s work notwithstanding), but it’s back in full force with Captive State.
None of the actors are necessarily bad here, but they’re hindered by the incompetent filmmaking and never get a chance to shine. Vera Farmiga, in spite of being billed relatively high, is given less than five minutes of screen time, and she only plays a significant role in the film’s (admittedly rather well-done) final moments. The relationships between the characters never sell for longer than a single shot (which seem to have an average length of about .8 seconds). Phoenix aims to liberate the world, but the oppression never comes across, and they end up doing more harm than good over the course of the film. With all of this wasted potential, I can’t help but wonder if this would’ve been better off as a schlocky sci-fi B-movie with lower thematic ambitions.
Perhaps the worst thing about Captive State, as much as I hesitate to make this somewhat shallow complaint, is that it’s just plain boring. The strange, unseen aliens should be the least of everyone’s concerns, because the needlessly incomprehensible plot is the real captor here. The characters are so busy churning the narrative that we’re never allowed to latch onto them, which is disappointing considering the tremendous pathos Wyatt achieved with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011. The stakes never come across in any substantial manner, making for a dull, ineffective story. It’s not good enough to get a pass from me, and it’s not bad enough to be a memorable failure, so it ends up being nothing more than a shameful missed opportunity.
In short, there’s almost nothing worthwhile here. It’s clear to see at least some of the effort being put into this, and the overarching notions of individualism and rebellion are just interesting enough to keep this from being an utter train wreck, but there are so many other movies available that explore these same ideas in much better ways. To name just a few, François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 provides a better example of the independence motif, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place is infinitely more pleasing from a suspenseful alien invasion point of view, and John Carpenter’s They Live deftly and satirically covers both bases. Those aren’t even among the greats, but they’re so much more interesting to watch compared to Captive State, which will likely be almost entirely forgotten within a few months.
Sam is a frequent contributor to Cinemaholics, former co-host of Anyway, That’s All I Got, and currently hosts the weekly Extra Milestone podcast. He’ll watch anything once, but makes no guarantees about whether or not he’ll remember it.