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Directed and co-written by the filmmaker who kick-started the last Planet of the Apes trilogy, Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), Captive State is a dystopian sci-fi thriller with a premise you may find novel. I say ‘may’ because the concept has rarely been explored in films, but frequently in videogames. Captive State is set in a future where aliens have taken over planet Earth and essentially enslaved mankind. Yes, the war is over. The future is lost. Now, Rupert Wyatt asks: “What happens next? How does humanity adapt?”

In cinematic terms, the film has a bit in common with Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009). But unlike that South African sci-fi film, which offered interesting allegories to apartheid, the politics in Captive State aren’t as clear. Of course, this isn’t always a bad thing, but the film’s narrative muddiness doesn’t always seem deliberate. The script often feels half-baked, as if Rupert Wyatt wasn’t too sure where he was going with the many interesting ideas that took shape as he put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.

The film is set in Chicago, nine years after the aliens broke the back of the resistance and became overlords. Called the “Legislators”, these giant porcupine-like beings live underground, where they can harvest the planet’s resources. This is convenient because we hardly see them throughout the film, and it probably makes it easier on the budget.

Despite an interesting premise, the storytelling just isn’t strong enough in director Rupert Wyatt’s Captive State

But I digress.

The social commentary here involves timeless themes such as resistance. But although Captive State certainly has its moments, the social commentary can either feel heavy-handed or confused. The two main characters are Gabriel Drummond (Ashton Sanders) and police chief William Mulligan (John Goodman).

While John Goodman’s character comes across as somewhat generic, Ashton Sanders, who played Teen Chiron in Moonlight (2016), is more interesting. The actor seems to have a gift at generating empathy from viewers. In Captive State, he plays a young factory worker whose brother, a resistance operative, was killed. With his girlfriend (Madeline Brewer), Gabriel now hopes for a better life. Here, he secretively communicates with resistance insiders through classifieds in the newspaper, gaining resources. This, of course, is good news for journalists — that newspapers still exist in the future. We learn that a counter-attack is being planned, but that’s about it. It’s another decision by Rupert Wyatt to keep us in the dark.

While John Goodman’s character comes across as somewhat generic, Ashton Sanders, who played Teen Chiron in Moonlight (2016), is more interesting. The actor seems to have a gift at generating empathy from viewers.

Unfortunately, not every attempt — or even most attempts — by Rupert Wyatt to keep us on a need-to-know basis work. The storytelling isn’t that strong, the filmmaking techniques aren’t as good, and the editing is too choppy. Eventually, there are a couple of surprises, but these feel like bits of information we should have known in the first place, rather than a carefully played ‘gotcha’ moment by a masterful filmmaker.

The special effects are a mixed bag. On the one hand, some of the CGI comes across as low-budget. On the other, the design of the ships and the creatures are creative. With a little more effort, the visuals could have been more compelling, which is something I can safely say for the rest of the film as well.

Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, some sexual content, brief language and drug material

Published in Dawn, ICON, March 24th, 2019