It may seem like a fool’s errand to find a new angle on the alien invasion thriller — Captive State, however, is determined to give it a shot. Rupert Wyatt’s science-fiction movie is less interested in futuristic spectacle and more in the human drama of what happens after the bad guys win. It barely shows us the extraterrestrials themselves; our clearest view comes when we glimpse them in the opening moments, during the initial hostile takeover. The creatures look like giant spiders crossed with porcupines, and they have the ability to obliterate people with one giant blast of … well, something. It doesn’t matter. The point is that they’re extremely powerful. After that opening prologue, we are quickly informed that humanity surrendered and the aliens, now called the Legislators, have taken over the planet.
But here’s where things gets interesting, sort of. The largely unseen Legislators rule not through the gee-whiz space-age power of laser beams and whatnot, but via the traditional coercion of distant autocrats. They have established closed zones in major cities, i.e. areas into which people are not allowed, and started building giant underground dwellings, where they mine Earth of its natural resources. On the surface, humanity carries on much as before, only things are grayer, people are sadder and government officials stay on the lookout for anyone who dares to resist our new insect overlords.
In other words, this is not quite the kind of apocalyptic alien dystopia we’ve seen in countless other movies. We the people, as always, have adapted to their new reality. In drab, run-down Chicago, veteran police chief William Mulligan (John Goodman, all conflicted glowers and morose mumbles) keeps a close eye on Gabriel Drummond (Moonlight‘s Ashton Sanders), a young factory worker determined to escape this bleak life. Meanwhile, a small resistance group prepares to strike against the Legislators. How, you ask? We’re not told.
In facty, viewers are kept in the dark about a lot of things here, and it’s partly by design. Wyatt clearly establishes a need-to-know basis in regards to people’s identities and motivations until just the right moment. And yes, this can at times result in tedium, especially with so much screen time devoted to the hectic minutiae of human activity: Gabriel’s busy work getting ready to leave; the resistance’s efforts to communicate via messenger pigeons and classified ads in newspapers (oh good, there are still newspapers in the future); Mulligan’s efforts to keep tabs on everybody. But it’s all so rushed that it’s hard to feel involved with what’s going on. We feel like we walked into the movie a few minutes late and keep having to ask, “Wait, who is that guy, and what is he doing?”
The conceit of making the aliens largely absent villains does give the film a quietly allegorical quality; really, they could be any kind of autocrat or invader. Yet Wyatt never explores that idea much further. A scene where the Chicago police commissioner, having invited to go join the Legislators in their underground lair, confesses to Mulligan the cynical reasons why he’s doing the invaders’ bidding says all sorts of potentially interesting things about how power works in corrupt, coercive dictatorships. So why is little done with the idea beyond that one scene?
However, that tangled and disparate story is building up to something, and the final act — as the resistance’s plans become clearer and various story threads come together — musters a bit of genuine power. Some of it has to do with the performances of Goodman and Sanders, each of whom eventually conveys a different kind of melancholy. The former has the regretful countenance of a man with a grim, distasteful duty; the other the anxious rage of someone who just wants no part of anything around him. Together, they bring some emotional texture to this sad, drab world. That’s not quite enough to make Captive State great science-fiction, but it ensures that the film lingers in the mind longer than it takes to run the end credits.