Review: Captive State (2019)

Captive State tries to take the sci-fi genre in a different direction, using an alien occupation as a backdrop for a film about a political revolution. The film was almost silently dropped into theaters, apparently having a review embargo up until its first public screenings.

The studio had fair reason to do this; Captive State is a jumbled mess of a movie, one that appears technically competent on the most basic levels but incapable of doing much with what it has. It’s clear the film wants to play upon some sort of political intrigue, never explaining what each character is truly doing; unfortunately, this coats the entire film in this vague layer of confusion. There’s a clear stylistic goal in its presentation, sometimes letting the camera quietly observe its characters and allowing actions to speak for themselves – but this is a problem when so many actions have no clear meaning.

Because it so consistently fails to establish anything, it’s similarly hard to invest in the narrative. Why should we care about any of these characters? A lot of people pop into this plot merely to die minutes later. The film even loses track of one of its two protagonists for what must have been half an hour – he gets trapped inside a subway booth, being chased down by a form of alien we haven’t seen before and won’t see at any other point in the movie, and simply stays there while a deluge of other characters push the plot forward. How did no one notice that they practically wrote a lead character out of a large chunk of the second act?

While carrying this vague energy throughout, it also telegraphs way too obviously in key moments. John Goodman’s William Mulligan has an early scene with the resistance leader who fronts as a prostitute. She talks of Greeks bearing gifts, and then the film cuts to a literal picture of a Trojan horse on her wall. Why make your eventual ‘plot twist’ so clear but none of the scenes we have to endure until that point?

Captive State simply lacks any form of the human element – despite being about humans rising up against an alien force, its characters are pure vessels for narrative advancement and nothing more.

It similarly lacks on the narrative front – the designs are subpar, and there is a variety to the aliens that is never properly established. The absolute worst of this is a shot of an alien spaceship travelling over the water; the effect is abysmal, this vague rock-like structure simply hovering, and I swear the exact same shot was used twice. Additionally, these mecha-like structures are lined up along the waterfront, but I don’t remember ever seeing them being used or otherwise referenced. So many pieces of the design act as simple signifiers, serving solely as a reminder that, yes, this is a science fiction film.

There’s a desperate need for more original films tackling genre fiction in new ways. Captive State likely started out with this goal, but every element works against it as a film. It’s bland, not by being generic, but by failing to establish any artistic purpose. Whatever this film was attempting to do got lost in murky editing choices and one dimensional characters.

1.5 Stars Out of 5

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