“Captive State” is a dour, unfocused film that has a lot of really neat sci-fi ideas, but ultimately fails to execute them all that well.
I don’t know enough about the film to blame it on the screenplay or the editing, but when you fail to understand the importance of having main characters, then there’s not much that’s going to help you. Getting the audience to support and connect with your main characters is storytelling 101.
No amount of freaky aliens is going to patch over that blunder.
“Captive State” is set several years after aliens invaded and colonized the planet Earth. They live underground and rule humanity with an iron fist. But if people keep their heads down and do as they’re told, they can still live pretty normal lives.
The film stars Ashton Sanders as Gabriel Drummond, a blue collar bloke living in the shadow of his brother, Rafe, a famous freedom fighter and martyr. Drummond’s attempts to get out of alien-controlled Chicago get him wrapped up in his brother’s insurrection. He’s also hounded by William Mulligan, played by John Goodman, a high-ranking police figure who is trying to squash the rebellion before they do something so crazy that the aliens have no choice but to unleash a brutal punishment.
Since there probably wouldn’t be a movie otherwise, the rebellion definitely does something “so crazy”.
“Captive State” is about as bleak as films get. Awash in drab grays and browns, the film takes the concept of “dark and gritty” to a whole new level. This is ugly, boots-on-the-ground rebel terrorist stuff, and it’s not portrayed in a heroic light.
Yes, the film is about a small group of human resistance fighters trying to save the world from alien invaders, but “Captive State” is not “Independence Day”. This film isn’t throwing around heroic one-liners and engaging in spectacular dog fights. This is dark, dour and serious, with no guarantee of anything close to a happy ending.
Not even the usually affable John Goodman can manage any charisma in “Captive State”.
The biggest blunder the film makes, however, is by completely removing Sanders and Goodman from the big Second Act rebellion set piece. It’s an odd choice. The first part of the film clearly sets up Sanders and Goodman as our two main characters, giving the audience a reason to care about them and their actions.
Then both characters are sidelined for a long, detailed section of the film where a bunch of freedom fighters we don’t know conduct an intricate and dangerous operation to strike a blow at the aliens. It’s a pretty good sequence, if only on a technical storytelling level. But because we don’t know the characters involved and barely know anything about their rebellion, the audience is left feeling disconnected from what’s happening.
It doesn’t help when this very bleak movie gives the whole thing a very bleak ending.
You can’t sideline your main characters for large swaths of the movie without the audience losing some level of connection. “Captive State” makes this mistake and never quite recovers.