Rupert Wyatt’s Captive State begins with the trope of the ominous, overlapping news audio playing over black screens and production logos. The newscasters speak of an “apocalyptic” state. Then, we see a city of Chicago in chaos. From the vantage of noxious, tight handheld closeups inside of a car, we witness civilians trying to evacuate and being contained by the military. The car we occupy gets through the blockade, just barely, but is stopped by an elusive, pitch-colored, form-shifting alien.
We are then transported to a computer screen being fed an outgoing message, and with it comes a massive dump of backstory and expository information. “Alien forces have taken over. They now have legislative control.” “Reports of deportations—off planet.” “Our objective remains the same. Strike the closed zone. Light a match, start a war.” Yadda yadda. The increasing disparity between the rich and the poor. A military state of Chicago under heavy surveillance, aided in part by implants probed into each citizen’s neck.
All in all, it is an inelegant introduction to this dystopian sci-fi.
For many, the means of storytelling in Captive State will be a consistent issue. Inelegance is the operative descriptor. With clinical plotting, the script unravels a long thread that has some inane moments, including a comically convoluted linear trail of dominoes used to get the word out about an upcoming insurgent mission.
The scene in question unfolds like a comedy sketch, as information is distributed in increasingly zany ways: first a note scratched into a cigarette roll, which is transported via carrier pigeon, relayed covertly through a radio DJ request show, then through a barking dog. It is an almost surreal sequence of events that seems out of place in this gritty dystopian thriller.
And that shaky handheld style doesn’t disappear, either. It is a crude, at times nauseating experience, and it is a style unnecessary for the story being told. It comes off more like a lame aping of District 9 that is coming too many years too late.
The most detrimental aspect of this poor camera work is in the depiction of the alien species, who play a key, if not peripheral, part in the film. Whenever they appear, the lighting is keyed far too low. Match that with the distorting shake of the camera, and it becomes hard to see what is a truly fantastic character design. The black aliens smoothly reform themselves to fit their situation, whether they be hunting, defending, or attacking. For a mid-size budget, they look quite good, and their design is intriguing. But they are not captured in a way that is appealing.
This 1-2 punch of cluttered plot and shoddy camera work will be enough to turn plenty of viewers off. And the sheer breadth of characters, none of whom have much to contribute on an emotional level, makes commenting on the acting a non-starter. Leads Ashton Sanders and John Goodman do a terrific job of allowing us to buy into this world, but their characters disappear for long stretches of the film. In the end, every character and acting performance is tertiary to the intended spectacle of the world-building.
Yet, I was pleasantly surprised by Captive State. I was, I admit it, charmed by its mid-to-low budget aspirations. By no means a master stroke, it is a film that hums along at a nice clip. Stack atop that a world jam-packed with information to relay—from the exposition, to the plot, to the insane number of characters—and the film becomes a delirious romp.
When we hit the set piece that serves as the crucial midpoint, a turning point in the cold war, the sudden transition to directorial finesse is whiplash-inducing (in a good way?). This sequence is entrancingly tense. Even if one only slightly understands the stakes of the sabotage attempt (information is thrown at you so fast and furious that one could not be blamed for tuning out a few important kernels), the visual geography is exciting and dynamic.
In the end, Captive State is not the bombastic-yet-heady science fiction spectacle Wyatt set out to make. But it is dense with plotting and incident and intrigue. A fan of the genre may find themselves immersed enough in the world to ignore its numerous shortcomings. At the very least, there is campy fun to be had in the tension of the setup and from the rug being pulled out of certain characters during the film’s climax.
Captive State: B-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)