'Captive State': Film Review

Sci-fi social commentary at its most ponderous.

John Goodman and Ashton Sanders star in Rupert Wyatt's sci-fi thriller about the aftermath of an alien invasion.

You can't fault Rupert Wyatt's sci-fi thriller for lacking ambition. The film, about the aftermath of an alien invasion, is fairly bursting with ideas. So many, in fact, that it doesn't seem to have any clue what to do with them. Visually murky, choppily edited and lacking both narrative clarity and well defined characterizations, Captive State is a deeply frustrating viewing experience. It seems to be straining mightily for a future cult status which it doesn't deserve.

We're informed at the film's beginning that it's been nine years since the aliens, or "Legislators" as they prefer to call themselves, took over the planet. The story is set in Chicago, which seems a perverse choice since that city suffers plenty enough already. The Legislators, who live underground, have apparently accomplished quite a bit during their forced rule. As the Chicago mayor proclaims in a speech, there has been an "American renaissance" in which the economy is booming and crime is at an all-time low. You can easily imagine screenwriters Wyatt and Erica Beeney congratulating themselves on the cleverness of their social commentary.

When there's an occupation, however, there's always a resistance. It's exemplified here by Gabriel (Ashton Sanders, Moonlight), a young man working in a factory that specializes in removing data from the cell phones and other electronic devices that have been banned. For Gabriel, it's personal, as his brother Rafe (Jonathan Majors) was a resistance fighter who was killed during a raid. Except that he is actually alive, and provides Gabriel with funds and information to help him and his girlfriend (Madeline Brewer) flee the city. Just as we're getting invested in his fate, Gabriel goes unseen for a long stretch of the picture, as if the screenwriters somehow forgot about him.

Hot on the heels of the resistance fighters is lawman Mulligan (John Goodman, never bothering to change his facial expression), who discovers they are communicating with each other through classified ads. (That classified ads still exist in the future is one of the film's more outlandish conceits.) During his downtime, Mulligan makes occasional visits to a prostitute (Vera Farmiga, not given nearly enough to do) who regales her clients with Nat King Cole's recording of "Stardust." That record is one of the most beautiful ever made, but it's played so frequently here, and with such an obvious attempt at irony, that you'll grow to hate it by the pic's conclusion.

I would say more about the storyline, but it's handled in such jumbled, confusing fashion that trying to keep up with it becomes a fool's game. There seems to be a lot of it, to be sure, conveyed via a procession of short, jumpy scenes that would be bursting with tension if you had some idea of what was going on. Many supporting characters are introduced, from a journalist (Alan Ruck) involved in the resistance to a government official (Kevin Dunn) very much in cahoots with the aliens, but you never really learn anything about them. The plot's chief element concerns the rebels planning to bomb a massive rally in Soldier Field, but despite the frenzied pacing no real suspense is generated. There's also a big climactic plot twist, which might have been impactful if only we actually cared.

Captive State certainly boasts atmosphere to spare, with director of photography Alex Disenhof following the dystopian sci-fi movie playbook by filming everything in a bluish-grey, monochromatic palette that makes you desperate to see a clear sky after you leave the theater. The aliens themselves are seen only fleetingly, which is probably for the best since some resemble oversized porcupines while others look like elaborate Halloween costumes.  

Production companies: Participant Media, Lightfuse & Gettaway
Distributor: Focus Features
Cast: John Goodman, Ashton Sanders, Jonathan Majors, Vera Farmiga, Kevin Dunn, James Ransone, Alan Ruck, Madeline Brewer, Machine Gun Kelly, Kevin J. O'Connor, Ben Daniels
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Screenwriters: Erica Beeney, Rupert Wyatt
Producers: David Crockett, Rupert Wyatt
Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King, Ron Schmidt, Adam Simon
Director of photography: Alex Disenhof
Production designer: Keith P. Cunningham
Editor: Andrew Groves
Composer: Rob Simonsen
Costume designer: Abby O'Sullivan
Casting: Sheila Jaffe, Joan Philo

Rated PG-13, 109 minutes