Review: ‘Captive State’ (the revolution will be micro-budgeted)

Take back the planet… in the most unbelievably complicated long-shot possible.

In April of 2019, aliens from another world quickly and brutally invade our planet. World leaders agree to an abrupt and complete surrender, and over the next ten years, the invaders settle into secure bunkers in major cities to direct the systematic theft of Earth’s resources. With the docile population being tracked by hybrid drone swarms, dissenters like Rafe Drummond (Jonathan Majors) still get themselves killed in desperate attacks meant to free the Earth. Collaborators like William Mulligan (John Goodman) report vigilantes risking human lives by fighting back… receiving privilege in exchange for service. William spends his free time keeping a close eye on Rafe’s surviving younger brother Gabriel (Ashton Sanders) for outward signs of resistance, but not everyone and everything is as it appears.

Boasting a top-notch cast and generating a bit of Super Bowl buzz a few months back, this film looks like a bleak, cold war resistance kind of thing… with aliens. Calling themselves Legislators — the new lawmakers over the citizens of Earth — it isn’t difficult to draw a parallel to the trailer scenes of welcoming sycophants cheering and singing about being under the thumb of a conqueror who does not have the best interest of Earthlings in mind. The ads reveal few details other than something secret going on — including fatalities if the perpetrators are caught — but can the filmmakers pull off a street-level alien invasion thriller on literal star-power alone without an Independence Day spectacle?

If you’re familiar with the film Attack the Block, you already know there’s a smart and clever way to do a friendly neighborhood alien invasion story. Unfortunately, Captive State opens with Reign of Fire’s folly: telling and not showing, the biggest no-no in spectacle cinema. After a quick recap in essentially text messages, viewers must learn for themselves what the characters already know rather than provide backstory; this could have worked far better if we’d started there without any recap at all, much like The Matrix. Finally, the assumed main character in the first act is abruptly sidelined in the second act — shades of the title character in Pixar’s Wall-E — presumably because there was too much story to tell with no affordable way to tell it.

The real crime is there’s a good story here, a behind-the-lines World War II-like sabotage mission, not dissimilar from Rogue One. It has all the earmarks of intrigue and courage in putting a few lives on the line to save billions — the entire population, in fact. What isn’t clear due to the abbreviated introduction is why such a plan would work to begin with. Viewers are given no idea what convinced Earth to be surrendered in the first place and especially whether that original threat still exists. If those ideas could have been clearer, if the reasons for the long-game subterfuge were better explained, and if this was a mini-series on HBO or Netflix instead of a jumbled two-hour movie, maybe this could have worked; what we ended up with was a low-budget Battlefield Earth.

Rupert Wyatt, the director who delivered the reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes, cribs a few ideas from himself, including a similar globe-spanning aftermath that runs through the end credits. There are so many interesting ideas herein, like the Data Reclamation Center, cities turned into indentured work forces, and wondering what “exile” off-planet really means; instead, we never get to see outside of one corner of occupied Chicago. While the aforementioned Rise of the Planet of the Apes lit the fuse for what was to come in that franchise, Captive State desperately needed a prologue, more money, or possibly a prequel; even John Goodman couldn’t save it.

Captive State is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, some sexual content, brief language, drug material, and an actual case for John Travolta sporting dreadlocks.

One recommendation out of four

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