What would the world be like if an alien race didn’t decimate us, but rather decided to rule us instead? It’s a neat concept, right? Well, that’s the idea that helped inspire a new movie from writer/director Rupert Wyatt, the man who brought us “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, called “Captive State”. Leading up to its release I didn’t know a whole lot about what “Captive State” was going to give us other than a world where aliens have taken control of society and people rise up to end it, but the previews and the general idea had had me intrigued for months. Over the last few years science fiction films have become deeper and more insightful about humanity and society, so seeing a film that explores the politics of alien overlords seemed like the next logical step for the genre. As the release drew closer however I began to hear rumblings that the film isn’t necessarily what it seems and that it tries to tackle social themes but doesn’t quite hit the mark. Naturally, I decided to give “Captive State” a chance. So, let’s get to it. This is my review of “Captive State”.
“Captive State” takes place nine years after humanity has fallen under the leadership of a mysterious alien race. Instead of different world governments, all nations are now united under the leadership of the alien legislators who live underground and feed off of the natural resources of Earth, taking those who oppose them or break their laws to their home planet to serve as slaves. While much of humanity has accepted and even embraced their new alien overlords a group of rebels in Chicago called Phoenix have risen to challenge the legislators and commit acts of terror in an attempt to open the eyes of humanity and end alien rule. Chicago Police Officer William Mulligan (John Goodman) seeks to put an end to the work of Phoenix and recruits a young man named Gabriel (Ashton Sanders), the son of Mulligan’s partner dead partner, to help infiltrate Phoenix and stop their plans. The story reveals Gabriel’s deeper connection to the group that may make him a key component to both the resistance and those trying to maintain the status quo.
Going into “Captive State” I expected a fun, exciting, and deep narrative that explored ideas like political oppression, hive mentality or maybe even challenged the benefits and consequences of a society where humanity is united under an outside power. The setup was perfect. An alien species coming to Earth and uniting humanity while a select few rise up to undermine them. That idea is rife with possibilities and yet “Captive State” fails to offer anything of substance within its nearly two-hour run time. That’s not to say this film doesn’t try. Hidden somewhere in this flick are some pretty ballsy ideas and inspired political commentary that could have made for a great film if handled properly. Unfortunately, none of it is explored with enough depth to make this movie anywhere close to interesting. “Captive State” is the kind of movie that feels like it has a lot to say, but it never really gets to the point. It just kind of happens and leaves little to no mark on the viewer by the time the credits roll. When “Captive State” finally ended I found myself question what I was supposed to learn from the experience and sometimes that’s a good thing. Movies like “Annihilation” manage to be thought-provoking with the intent of not showing you the answer. But “Captive State” isn’t like that. It teases you with details and concepts but never reaches the level of enlightenment or inspiration I feel like it was built to evoke.
Another small credit to “Captive State” is it attempts to be a grounded sci-fi flick with less focus on the over-the-top excitement of action-packed genre pieces and more of a focus on a post-invasion society that humanity assumes is better off but is actually worse. This could have been an interesting setup to show how people can gather around the false idea even when the evidence around them shows they are wrong. On paper it’s a neat concept that fits perfectly with the modern political climate. It opens the doors for the exploration of oppression as well as how easily a system can be corrupted simply through the promise of something greater. Ironically, I just explained all of these ideas much better than “Captive State”. The screenplay is as bland as it gets with little focus and a poorly structured story that, to be pretty blunt, is just plain boring. It’s so boring in fact that “Captive State” is the only movie to EVER put me to sleep. I not even kidding, I missed five minutes of the film because I dozed off. That’s how boring and uninteresting this epic miss of a post-invasion alien-theme political thriller turned out to be.
It doesn’t help that the characters are just as bland as the screenplay. Almost nobody looks good coming out of this movie except maybe John Goodman who at least tries to give his character, Officer William Morgan, the smallest bit of depth. Nobody else is anywhere close to interesting or invested. Ashton Sanders, Jonathan Majors, Machine Gun Kelly (ugh), Vera Formiga and others add nothing to a film that already lacks substance or personality which is sad because some of these performers are legitimately good at what they do. They just don’t have the material to get it done here. There’s minimal time (hell minimal effort) to establish who most of these people are, why we should care about them or even who the main protagonist really is. For example, Ashton Sanders gets top billing and we are introduced to his character Gabriel from the start, but then the movie just ignores him for half an hour and then all of a sudden makes him an important part of the story in the final act when he was absent for much of the action. How am I supposed to invest in your main characters when more of the focus is on the secondary cast? We do get a cool reveal in the final fifteen minutes of the movie that ties some of the main characters together but that only frustrated me more because it showed signs of life and creativity that were completely absent throughout the rest of the film.
I don’t know what else I can say about this movie except its biggest flaw is possibly the most severe problem any film could face: that as a viewer I felt like I could have made a better movie. I left the theater with all of these ideas in my head of how I could have written something a thousand times better using the same general concept as “Captive State”. I can literally think of a hundred different individual stories that could have easily utilized the post-invasion alien overlords idea to tackle some aspect of society. To its credit “Captive State” comes off like it really wants to explore the possibilities of its premise, but its lack of focus or commitment to any specific concepts leaves us with a narrative we can barely comprehend let alone enjoy. “Captive State” lacks the execution or competence to truly embrace the nuances of its bold ideas and thus what should have been a socially significant film that might have been a bit overblown and pretentious waters down any of the themes that could have made it stand out basically ending with nothing more than a simple statement that “space aliens are bad”. Here’s an idea: what if the aliens actually DID make the world a better place and Phoenix was a group of well-meaning individuals who feel the world has sacrificed freedom for peace? Doesn’t that sound like an awesome idea that would challenge the viewer to determine whether or not the humans or the aliens are the true heroes of the story? See what I mean? I just came up with a better story than this entire film in one sentence.
I’m not sure if “Captive State” was trying too hard or not trying hard enough, but the end result is an unfocused, uninteresting and bland mess that drags on minute by minute and offers little substance, no real coherent plot or point and MAYBE only a single memorable character at best. It has been a long time since I’ve seen a movie I was so excited to experience and walked out so disappointed and underwhelmed. I mean almost everything about this film for me was mishandled and what should have been an inspired, creative and interesting attempt at exploring human society through the appearance of aliens, in the same vein as films like “Arrival” and “District 9”, ends up being lost in a cloud of jumbled ideas that are never realize and seldom, if ever, leave us anything worth remembering at the end of the day. I’ve seen a lot of movies that have frustrated me over the years, but “Captive State” is the first to ever disappoint me on this level, hyping me up before I saw it and then literally putting me to sleep in the theater. It’s a dull, lifeless and unfocused mess that is better left forgotten in favor of superior movies that paved the way for the sci-fi resurgence over the past few years.