The opening credits of Captive State start with a series of title cards detailing the events of an alien invasion and takeover. We’re informed that the aliens are now known as “legislators” since they control the law; major cities are now closed zones where humans labor to build underground tunnels for the aliens; collaboration with the aliens has exacerbated income inequality; and people who resist are deported off world. That’s a lot of interesting stuff that we’re only told about before the story picks up in Chicago, 2027. While the thought of dropping in right in the middle of an alien occupation is interesting, Rupert Wyatt’s movie is too scattered to get us invested in the story. Too often, Captive State feels like starting a TV show at the beginning of its third season (I specifically flashed back to Season 3 of Battlestar Galactica multiple times) where you understand the conflict, but you don’t know any of the characters. Wyatt wants to immerse us in clandestine operations from both the collaborators and the insurgents, but the result is a movie where we just see a lot of secret messages getting passed, scheming, and we don’t even know the characters’ names. Captive State’s biggest problem isn’t that it starts in the middle, but that it doesn’t really know how to start at all.
The story is set between Earth’s insurgents and those who collaborate with the aliens (called “legislators” by collaborators and “roaches” by the insurgents, although they look like the universe’s angriest porcupines). Gabriel Drummond (Ashton Sanders) is the younger brother of legendary insurgent Rafe (Jonathan Majors), but Gabriel just wants to live in peace away from the conflict. He’s drawn into the fray by players on both sides with Special Branch operative Bill Mulligan (John Goodman) trying to work Gabriel for information and insurgents trying to pull him over because he’s related to Rafe. Meanwhile, an insurgent cell is working to strike back against the aliens and, in their words, strike a match that will ignite a war.
With a story this spread out, it’s incredibly difficult to become invested in any of the characters. We don’t know their personal lives or who they were before the invasion or how the invasion has impacted their day-to-day lives. If Captive State were a TV show, we’d probably know all the players and care about their motivations, but within the framework of a low-to-mid-budget sci-fi movie, the only aspect that can come to the forefront is the overall conflict and the characters don’t really matter. This means we get a lot of scenes where characters have secret meetings or send secret messages or spy on each other using the special implants the aliens have put in everyone, but the personal stakes are obscured. Perhaps if the film had focused only on Gabriel or only on Bill or only on the insurgent cell, we’d have more of a connection to these characters, but as it stands, Captive State is too dispersed and divided to make an impact.
For example, midway through the movie, the film completely changes its focus and leaves Gabriel and Bill behind so it can focus on the insurgents. We don’t know who most of these people are. We see a guy at home and he gets the secret message, so he gets his dog and leaves. We see a woman at a garage get the same message, and so she goes to leave as well. We don’t know who they are, where they come from, what they want (other than to strike back at the aliens), and so they become stock figures. That’s not an insult to the actors playing these characters, but a problem that’s on the page where it would be extremely charitable to refer to these people as even one-dimensional. They are “INSURGENTS” and that’s really all that means.
There are interesting ideas swirling around Captive State, but without a strong central figure, they never get to develop. The movie flirts with issues of surveillance, resistance, and deportation, but these political topics never feel like anything more than window dressing. The closest Captive State comes to something substantive is in pointing how human beings are stronger together, but our bonds can also be exploited as a weakness. Unfortunately, the film is too focused on its massive conflict and weak reveals to make much of a statement.
When your movie starts to wrap up by having one character explain who all the other characters were, something has probably gone awry. There are times where Captive State plays like a dumb sequel to Arrival, a far superior movie that also deals with human bonds and divisions in the face of alien invasion. But whereas Arrival knew to keep the focus on Amy Adams’ character and use her for a story about communication, time, and the weight of our decisions, Captive State is science fiction in service of premise without theme. It’s a movie that never really builds to more than “Collaborators vs. Insurgents” and doesn’t take the time to really explore what it means to be on either side.