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‘Captive State’ fails to capture the imagination

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If history has taught us anything, it’s that when people are confronted with an invasion, they inevitably fall into one of two categories: collaborator or resistor. It has been that way in every war that has ever been fought; when enemy forces take over, some will fall in line and others will fight back.

There’s no reason to think that that would somehow change if said forces came not from another country, but from another world.

That’s the basic gist of “Captive State,” an alien occupation thriller directed by Rupert Wyatt from a script he co-wrote with Erica Beeney. It’s a story of what it means to live under the rule of an enemy that seems too powerful to overcome – and what it means to stand up to that enemy anyway.

It’s not a particularly subtle movie; it wears its ideas on its sleeve and is more about blunt force than surgical precision. The story is a bit overlong as well and meanders through its middle third. However, the low-fi aesthetic is interesting and there are some good performances. Add it all up and you get an acceptable (and forgettable) sci-fi outing.

It was a decade ago that the aliens made first contact. What followed was a hasty armistice, a bowing to the military technological superiority demonstrated by the invaders. Calling themselves the Legislators, the aliens took over, taking charge of governments all over the world and seizing control of our natural resources. Authoritarians who saw which way the wind was blowing entered into collaboration with the Legislators, while those who resist have a less flattering name for the invaders, calling them “roaches.”

Gabriel Drummond (Ashton Sanders, “The Equalizer 2”) is a young man living in Chicago. He’s a hustler desperately searching for a way past the collaborator-manned checkpoints to freedom. His brother is a martyr, a resistance ringleader who died in an effort to bomb Chicago’s Closed Zone, the aboveground entry point to the Legislator operation center deep beneath the surface. Meanwhile, his deceased father’s former partner, a police commander named William Mulligan (John Goodman, TV’s “The Connors”), is actively collaborating with the Legislators while also trying to make sure that Gabriel stays on the straight and narrow.

Gabriel just wants to get enough money to make his escape, but the world has other plans. Mulligan is constantly watching (although in truth, everyone in the city is under constant surveillance thanks to the Legislators). And while most people believe the Resistance died along with Gabriel’s brother at Wicker Park, the truth is a good deal more complicated than that. It’s a tangled web, one that includes the city’s police commissioner (Kevin Dunn, TV’s “Veep”) and an activist prostitute (Vera Farmiga, “The Nun”) … and at the center of it all is the future of humanity.

Ultimately, it boils down to whether you’re willing to fight whatever battle is in front of you – even if it’s a potentially losing one.

There are some pieces to “Captive State” that really work. Alien occupation is a pretty standard sci-fi trope, but this film handles it pretty well. No one is reinventing the wheel, but there’s a lived-in grimy aesthetic that works well. You don’t want gleam with a movie like this; you want it dirty. Those visual and environmental choices help avoid the sterility you sometimes get with sci-fi, while the grittiness allows for a vibe without the need to invest too heavily in CGI or other effects.

Unfortunately, the story is a bit of a letdown. While the film starts strong and has an ending that packs a decent punch, the narrative definitely loses its way in the middle. Things get a little thin and a little convoluted. It seems too long, but one wonders if different choices might have advanced the story in more engaging and coherent ways.

What “Captive State” is really missing is a sympathetic lead. Sanders does his best with what he’s given – and finds success more often than the script warrants, frankly – but it isn’t quite enough to keep things on track. We simply don’t connect with him as closely as we should, though again, that’s on the writers rather than the actor. Goodman is easily the best thing about this movie, managing to turn what could have been a two-dimensional sketch of a character into someone who lives and breathes. He’s great. Farmiga and Dunn are both strong, albeit weirdly underused (one suspects they had limited availability). Classic “That Guy” Alan Ruck is here, as are Jonathan Majors, Madeline Brewer and rapper Machine Gun Kelly (yes, really).

The immediate comparisons that leap to mind are movies like “District 9” and “Elysium,” though “Captive State” isn’t as good as either of those films. Call it off-brand Blomkamp, a movie that is reminiscent of that director’s work without quite rising to his level of execution.

“Captive State” is an adequate piece of sci-fi entertainment with occasional whispers of greater possibility, a movie whose heavy-handed messaging fails to make it any more resonant than that; it’s a pleasant enough, but ultimately forgettable filmgoing experience.

[2.5 out of 5]

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