While story is often a key element to a great film, it’s not always required for a memorable and entertaining experience. “Style over substance” is a term used a lot, but filmmaking is art just like anything else. Stylish filmmaking with not a lot of substance, but guided by a sure hand can create a memorable experience. The filmmaker really needs to know what they’re doing, though. If your script sucks and the overall look and feel of your film is incredibly cheap, you have a really high uphill battle to overcome.

Captive State opens with a massive alien invasion, where they take over, enslave us, and use us for our labor and resources (as is tradition). A decade after the invasion, Chicago citizen Gabriel (Ashton Sanders) finds himself recruited by police officer William Mulligan (John Goodman) to join a team of rebels known as Phoenix. Phoenix, which exists as a vast, secret network of rebels in the Chicago area, has a plan that can hopefully take down the aliens once and for all. I think that’s what it was all about anyway. I’m not really sure.

Merriam-Webster defines the word ‘tripod’ as, “1 : a three-legged stand (as for a camera) 2 : a stool, table, or altar with three legs.” I included that definition in case co-writer/director Rupert Wyatt happens to stumble upon this review. I haven’t seen the only film I’ve seen of his, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in a few years, but I don’t remember an obnoxious amount of shaky cam like we got here. I don’t even mean during the action scenes (if there really are any), but throughout the entire damn thing. When people are just walking, talking, driving, and running around. All the time. Look, shaky cam does have its uses. Director Paul Greengrass of Jason Bourne series fame uses shaky cam to establish a constantly frenetic and realistic tone, which matches the feel of the movie. There’s no intensity to be found here, though, so the constant use of shaky cam coupled with the choppy editing was just distracting. Wyatt should learn what a Steadicam is too. 

That’s not to mention that the rest of the film looks absolutely cheap. The lighting and color grading are just awful. It’s a dreary look that’s supposed to mimic the desolate setting, but it’s so lazily done, like the color corrector just dragged the saturation bar down a little bit and called it a day. The visual effects are completely laughable, especially the design of the aliens. Imagine the monsters from A Quiet Place, but covered in tentacles that can turn into spikes, or something. I wasn’t really sure what they were supposed to be, especially when the only time we ever see them up close was in poorly lit scenes (clearly to mask the awful CGI). It turns out they have butthole faces under their mask things, which was hilarious, at least. The aliens clearly rule the Earth here, referred to as The Legislators, but I never really got the sense of the world the people lived in. At least the production design and costumes looked decent.

The aliens and the world don’t make sense and overall, the whole thing just doesn’t make any sense. There was a plot, I think, but it was mostly just a connection of scenes that felt like it was building up to nothing. I never knew where the story was going because it was so unfocused. I was actually on board with the concept at first, as I found the whole “occupied state” angle of an alien invasion intriguing, but it quickly lost my interest. William is the closest thing to a main character, as he’s the only consistent thread, with a lot of characters disappearing and only coming back when the plot needs them to. We have a little Barry Jenkins meetup here, with Ashton Sanders from Moonlight and Kiki Layne (in one scene) from If Beale Street Could Talk, having their talents totally wasted. I’m happy to see Sanders get work after his captivating performance in Moonlight, but not work like this. He tries his best, but is hampered by the awful script and direction. Aside from Goodman, Sanders, and a wasted Vera Farmiga, the acting is just bad all across the board. 

The film opens with Gabriel and his older brother Rafe as children when the invasion happens, so you of course expect that to be the story, but all that seems completely abandoned when a bunch of faceless, bland characters get thrown into the mix. There’s a whole subplot about the rebels bombing a meeting between the aliens and Chicago’s mayor in the middle that takes a up a large portion of the film. It’s admittedly the most interesting and suspenseful part of the film, but it just shows that there were many too many ideas thrown in here, like this entire concept was a 6-episode miniseries condensed down to 106 minutes. I never knew what was going on, nor what I was supposed to care about. Composer Rob Simonsen sure tried to make us care, though, with his Hans Zimmer-esque ticking clock score. It didn’t work, but hey, good effort. My friend I saw it with brought up that the whole alien angle feels like an afterthought, like it was added in way late in production to make the movie more fantastical. 

What absolutely solidifies Captive State as a completely lazy, thoughtless, and cheap affair is when it reuses the same shot of the alien ship taking off twice, just the second time it’s digitally zoomed in. Everything about this felt pathetic, and it’s even more pathetic when you consider that this seemed like some sort of passion project for Wyatt, as he co-wrote, produced, and directed. Just like the 3D fad he started a decade ago, filmmakers are already using James Cameron new technology from Alita: Battle Angel that pumps sleeping gas right into the theater. My friend and I were thankfully the only ones in the theater, so we were able to talk and joke, but even with that, this was one of the most boring theater going experiences of my life. 


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