Captive State advertised itself as an action-filled contemplation on what happens when aliens read Orwell’s 1984 then came to take over. There was very little world-dominating chaos like War of the Worlds or awe-inspiring ship landings like Close Encounters. Instead, Captive State, like District 9, fast-forwarded past the aliens’ arrival and focused on how alien-human interactions progress years later. It turned out that these aliens were far more interested in controlling the human race via legislation and brainwashing as opposed to killing everyone. This idea, if fleshed out, could have felt very unique and engaging. However, due to a lack of cohesion and willingness to actually fully commit to the eschewing genre norms, Captive State floundered for most of its nearly two hour runtime.
The biggest feat of Captive State was that it somehow managed to be filled with a number of contradictory problems at the same time. The film tried to say too much without effectively saying anything. The plot was utterly predictable while also being incredibly disjointed. The characters were expected to have emotional depth while being stoic cogs in the insurgent machine. The aliens were not scary or evil enough, but neither did they garner any compassion. Overall, Captive State was almost bad enough to fit in the “so bad it’s good” category, but not even that was quite right.
First, let’s talk about that ending. It was obviously supposed to be a huge twist that William Mulligan (Goodman) was on the insurgency side all along. But how was that ever in doubt? Here is what we learned in the first act of the film: he was the partner of the Drummond’s father, who said before he died that they had to regroup and fight back; he showed compassion for rebellious characters; they blatantly foreshadowed the shaft to the closed zone and the Trojan Horse theme; and he wanted to keep the aliens out of the investigations. I would have been flabbergasted if the twist was that Mulligan was on the aliens’ side all along.
Another huge issue for the film was the lack of character development. I grew to care about Gabriel Drummond, but aside from him, the fate of the rest of the cast had no impact on me. This was certainly at least in part an intentional choice by Wyatt. The rebels made a point to emphasize that they needed to be essentially invisible, and it was those moments of authentic emotions that ended the team’s ability to escape Chicago unscathed. If being boring, blank faces was truly the goal, then the actors succeeded marvelously. However, that’s simply not a captivating film experience. The demise of the attack team was clearly intended to bear more emotional impact to the audience, but there was no connection to create that bond.
It was frustrating to watch the occasionally interesting ideas come and go as fleetingly as the character development. The importance of community and family. If the writers were so committed to their themes that they were going to call their aliens Legislators, undoubtedly the most boring name for an alien in film history, then should have went more into how exactly they were using laws to create such a Big Brother state so quickly. Captive State made no attempt to convince the audience that legislation was a reasonably preferable option than just brute force, which the aliens clearly also had in droves. On that note, why were they so interested in being on Earth at all?
Captive State may mark the first time where I could really feel the limitations of a film’s budget on the movie. The audience never got to see what the closed areas looked like, which really limited the impact of the final explosion. Speaking of explosions, we also didn’t see any signs of damage from the explosion at soldier field, just the crowd of extras running around outside. There would have also been more emotional investment if Captive State showed what Pilsen looked like before the aliens began invading instead of just typed words and small fuzzy images. The dystopian scenes had no unique qualities to separate it from the countless other similar films.
I am all for ambiguity in films. Having to really critically think about what’s going on and what character motivations are is a big part of my film enjoyment. But there is a huge difference between ambiguous and indecipherable, and Captive State remains firmly in the latter category. In trying to say so much, Captive State ends up saying very little of any importance; a great effort, but one that was utterly forgettable.