An alien invasion picture built on the framework of a French Resistance thriller? That is absolutely an idea I think it's worth rallying behind. Resistance thrillers can be amazing things, combining the ingenuity and mechanical precision of a great heist movie with the life-or-death stakes of a real-world history, and they can have pretty much any politically symbolic overtones you like. Add in the appeal of science-fiction, and you have a recipe that, when done right, can mean some utter popcorn movie bliss.

Captive State doesn't do it right. Truth be told, I think I'd have to stop and think about ways for Captive State to have done it any worse, barring the obviously absurd. It is a dismal and scabby thing, squandering a concept, a setting, and a cast on some of the most inexplicably incoherent storytelling I have encountered in quite some time, kissed by flagrantly ugly, illegible cinematography. The very nicest thing I can say about it is that eventually it starts to make some sense, and if the twist ending had been moved up by about two-thirds, it might have gotten something pretty interesting out of its characters. In its present state, though, it's pure sludge.

The setting is the not-too-distant future, nine years after the immediate future,* at which point a race of extraterrestrials rather effortlessly will take over the planet. We see a fragment of this in the film's opening scene, by leaps and bounds the best few minutes of the 109 that the movie has to offer: a Chicago police officer with his wife and two kids in tow races across the city, trying to get away from a pointedly unstated something, and takes a wrong turn that puts him face to face with a few tank-sized alien vessels. With one blast, these blow out the window of the car, taking the parents with it, as the two boys in the back stare out with shell-shocked amazement at what appears to be a humanoid form made out of gunmetal grey porcupine quills. Cut to the credits, which jump ahead those aforementioned nine years, while using that old reliable bit of exposition, the Fake TV News Montage, to explain how these aliens, the "Legislators" have taken over the city centers of every major population center on Earth, while instituting a one-world government. The younger of those two boys has grown up to become one Gabriel Drummond (Ashton Sanders), who scratches out a living doing the various quasi-legal things one will under a totalitarian regime; the elder boy, Rafe (Jonathan Majors), is officially dead, remaining alive only in the memory of those who were inspired by his resistance efforts in his home neighborhood of Pilsen (which is name-dropped quite a hell of a lot, considering how obviously co-writers Erica Beeney & Rupert Wyatt know nothing about it - they make almost comically little out of the neighborhood's ethnic make-up, despite having a racially diverse lead cast). "Officially" dead, because of course he's not at all, and nobody suspects this more than William Mulligan (John Goodman), their dad's old partner, now a human apparatchik in the Legislator's occupation force.

If this leads you to expect a "resistance versus quisling cops, with the unformed, neutral Gabriel torn between both sides" narrative... actually, that's what you'll get. But you have to do a shitload of work to dig it out. The one thing I can say in favor of Captive State's approach to world-building is that it doesn't tell us anything that the characters would already know, either making us figure it out, catch a fragment of a passing news report, or simply wait for someone more ignorant than ourselves to wander in. The downside is that the information we are thus deprived includes basically everything about characters' lives and personalities - most of the latter is never even filled in, unless "beatific resistance martyr" is enough to do it for you as far as Rafe's ostensible personality. Hell, even the genre isn't clearly explained for something like 40 minutes of the film's running time, and when it finally shows its face, it involves introducing something like a half-dozen new people completely without a scrap of context, while Gabriel, the only person we've been primed to accept as protagonist up to this point, is unceremoniously ignored for the film's entire middle. To say nothing of how much the film has to shortchange most of its characters to preserve its extremely-not-tricky twist.

As much of a muddle as the film is narratively, it's so much worse visually. Captive State is directed by Wyatt and shot by Alex Disenhof to have a rough and tumble "you are there" feeling towards the occupied city, and this is achieved primarily through a whole lot of hand-held close-ups. Which is a combination uniquely designed to piss me off, but even without personal bias getting in the way, this is an aggravatingly busy, hectic, literally incomprehensible movie. When the only thing a movie really has to sell is the redressed city of Chicago (it doesn't have the budget to sell anything else; the aliens put in little more than an extended cameo, and they look silly as they do so. One repeated shot - we're not meant to notice it was repeated - of an alien ship speeding off over Lake Michigan is just about the shlockiest, cheapest-looking effect I can imagine somebody trying to get away with in a theatrical release), it would help to be able to see the city, or at least see the specific spaces around the characters, and Captive State is not interested in offering this to us. All it has is visual chaos, which it offers in the hopes that we will be suitably thrown and distressed by the arbitrary madness and violence of it all. But by failing to tether that chaos to stable, well-developed characters, or a clear set of narrative stakes, or even just a plainly-stated scenario, all that we get is visually loud, incoherent confusion.

The film should be better than this. Rupert Wyatt can certainly do more; he proved that with Rise of the Planet of the Apes back in 2011 (Captive State nakedly steals one particular visual concept from that film, and it comes right at the end, to make me all the more good & pissed off at him as I left the theater). The actors deserve more (including Vera Farmiga, in an especially thankless and empty role even by the standards of the thankless and empty roles she gets stuck with all the goddamn time). The concept deserves more. And, by quite a lot, the audience deserves more than this drab, dumb, irritating collection of quarter-baked ideas and confusingly-applied sci-fi tropes.




*Technically, if I followed the dates correctly, the occupation began in 2016. I believe that the film considers this to be the same thing as satire.