Captive State is Rupert Wyatt’s bleak post-alien invasion resistance film with excellent worldbuilding and plotting, but almost no attention to character development or scripting. That being said, it’s smart and filled with complex ideas.
I generally like to go into a movie with little to no information about is going on. With some films – of the newest Marvel or Star Wars variety – that’s usually not the most feasible option, try as I might to stare at my phone or go to the bathroom during the previews. Captive State, on the other hand, came to me out of nowhere. I knew that Rupert Wyatt, director of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, helmed and penned it, and that it takes place years after an alien invasion. Nothing else. For that, I’m glad. I had no expectations.
Captive State takes place nearly a decade after the aliens invaded, with a long expository sequence (using a computer screen) narrating the invasion, takeover, and attempted human insurrection. The aliens installed themselves as the Earth’s government, calling themselves Legislators, and walling themselves off in underground Closed Zones, sending instructions to human collaborators on the surface. The film follows Detective Mulligan (John Goodman) who’s trying to root out a resistance cell, and Gabriel Drummond (Ashton Sanders, of Moonlight notoriety) who reluctantly becomes embroiled in the fight.
There’s a lot to seriously appreciate in Captive State, though other critical reviews have focused mostly on the negatives. It’s bleak and grim, literally dark in its grading and coloring, not inviting the audience in. That being said, it doesn’t hold the audience’s hand – at all. Despite opening with a pretty word-heavy exposition, there’s very little dialogue. We sort of just have to follow along, figuring things out as we go. I actually really appreciated that – there’s a lot to observe and sort through. I’m also the guy who loved Mary Queen of Scots last year for that same reason – it didn’t fill in the historical gaps for its audience. Maybe I’m the weird one.
What’s harder to engage with here is the near-complete lack of characterization. Everything is so bleak and quiet, we’re just observing people moving around rather than engaging with them. I’m left rather torn because on one hand, I appreciate the ideas that Captive State grapples with, even that we’re forced to figure things out for ourselves. On the other hand, I cared about no character in the film – and couldn’t name any of them except for Gabriel. But we’re not really meant to. It’s about science fiction ideas and concepts and themes.
The Legislators have turned the Earth into a police state with Big Brother monitoring and tagging everyone. Collaborators do the bidding of “our friends down below.” Those same collaborators cling to the idea of a lifeboat. “If there’s any chance of getting off of this dying rock, I’m gonna take it,” says the police commissioner of Chicago. They’ve banned tech, especially phones, and they’re stripping the planet of all our national resources while putting out propaganda about how great the world has become under their watch. Humanity must find a way to resist this tyranny.
It’s like Colony in its premise and District 9 in its feel. Like Arrival, the aliens look truly alien, though in this case they wisely keep them in the shadows. Moreover, it feels similar to Wyatt’s own Rise of the Planet of the Apes in both good and bad ways. In fact, I sort of suspect this came from an idea he had of what would come after his film and adapted it to aliens from enhanced simians. It’s even bookended with similar expositional devices.
Captive State boasts a fantastic story and well-realized world all while suffering from a rough script and a lack of fleshed out characters, wasting the talents of Vera Farmiga, Kevin Dunn, and Alan Ruck, and nearly squashing those of John Goodman and Ashton Sanders, both of whom at least have the screen time to attempt to rise above the poor script.
Tyler is a teacher, librarian and the Co-host of The Geek Card Check Podcast. He has been a Film Critic for Ready Steady Cut since 2018.