Captive State and all the images you see in this review are owned by Focus Features
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
I still haven’t seen those Planet of the Apes movies, but I hear they’re pretty good; especially that first one which I recall being a rather big surprise for people. The guy’s only done a few other things since then, none of which I’ve seen, but hey! If you’re gonna go in without context, try to go all the way! I mean seriously, I hadn’t seen a trailer or even heard about this movie until I was trying to figure out what I was going to see after Captain Marvel, so this is one big question mark for me which is USUALLY a good thing in trying to get the most out of that initial experience, but it also means that I can easily get smacked up the head by something bafflingly awful which is its own special kind of torment. Will this movie I know nothing about live up to the expectations I don’t have for it, or will I be utterly disappointed by how bad this completely out of the blue failed to be as good as I envisioned it to be? Let’s find out!!
The movie takes place after aliens have already come down, kicked our butts, and have taken over everything; not so much to destroy the planet, but more like colonization where they keep us in line and plunder our natural resources. In Chicago, Gabriel (Ashton Sanders) is eking out an okay existence along with everyone else, but his late brother Rafe (Jonathan Majors) was part of a resistance movement that tried to attack the aliens and now he’s trying to do the same thing. However, there are a few roadblocks that are in his way. For one, there’s already a resistance movement making headway towards destroying the alien’s base in Chicago (some underground facility) which makes his paltry efforts seem inconsequential, and on top of that his late dad’s best friend William (John Goodman) is a cop that’s keeping an eye on him and also keeping an eye on anyone who maybe planning further terrorist attacks against their alien overlords. This has been made somewhat easy because for some reason everyone now has a bug (it’s unclear if its literally or figuratively) implanted in their necks to keep track of their movements at all time, and of course the authorities have gone all police state to keep people in line. Can this resistance group actually make a serious blow against their oppressors, and will Gabriel somehow be a key part to their plan without him even knowing it? What will William do when push comes to shove and he has to take decisive action against those who he’s sworn to stop from inciting more violence and angering the aliens? Is the twist gonna be that the aliens are actually Krypotnians, because this looks A LOT like Man of Steel.
Since the start of the year, I have made it my goal as a film critic to do a better job of explaining why I don’t like a movie instead of saying I don’t and then justifying my opinion with random nitpicks from the film. Now I don’t think I EVER got anywhere near as bad as the nadir of cinematic discourse that is Cinema Sins, but that kind of approach, even if backed up by a legitimate emotional reaction is rarely all that insightful. I bring this up because I feel I need to be honest about something before I talk about this movie, and it’s that I’m VERY intimidated by serious movies. Any movie that’s about a harsh or tough subject matter or makes explicit parallels to modern day problems is one that I feel I can too easily slip into that mode of just tearing apart insignificant details instead of confronting the movie head on or even admitting that my reactions are ones born out of ignorance. Now with all that said, I AM gonna come down on the side of saying this isn’t a particularly good film, but it hits enough of those buttons with me that I’m gonna have to be extra careful with how I approach my criticisms to not fall into bad habits or even let personal biases overtly cloud my analysis. IN MY OPINION, this movie is not particularly graceful with how it tackles its subject matter and yet is so focused on conveying it that the rest of the movie feels like a chore to sit though. Perhaps you could argue that this is what the filmmakers WANTED, an uncompromising vision not sullied by things like “fun” and “entertainment” to get in the way of its dark parable, but I think there are enough problems here for that to fell more like pretension than an actual groundbreaking work… but then again what the heck do I know?
Alright, so right off the bat, the movie sets a grim tone and a dismal atmosphere which saps away any sense of fun, whimsy, and beauty from this barely function world; a civilization on life support breathing its last rattled breathes before finally succumbing to the thing that made it sick in the first place. Said thing are the aliens of course, but outside of a scant number of scene, their presence is mostly felt instead of seen, and so the misery permeating throughout the city is either caused by the complicit humans or by a force so distant that trying to fight it is akin to a quixotic act. Now right off the bat I will tell you that I tend not to like movies or narratives like this since I tend to prefer narratives with life, color, joy, and humor; noting of course that it’s not impossible for these two things to coexist as my favorite movie of all time is Dr. Strangelove. Still, the aesthetic here is one that is dour and oppressive, so be prepared for two hours of that if you do plan on seeing this as things never lighten up, and as far as I recall no one ever cracks a joke or does anything for the simple joy of it. I think it works less here than in other movies like it though because despite humanity being in a downward spiral, civilization hasn’t REALLY collapsed and there aren’t roving gangs of cannibals or slavers roaming the country side. People still have homes, electricity, even television and DVDs, so the atmosphere comes off as a bit much given the circumstances. It also does this thing in the first fifteen minutes of the movie that I GENUINELY dislike, which is that no one bothers to catch any of us up to speed on anything, so people will do and say things with such weight and import, but end up meaning nothing to us as we have no idea what’s going on and the aforementioned aesthetic means that it’s not all that interesting to watch until the film decides to tell us what’s going on. John Goodman will walk into a room, sit down for fifteen seconds, and then say something like “I don’t have much time” and that’s it. Now by the end of the movie it more or less makes sense (we’ll get to the third act soon enough), but for me a burn this slow in a world this depressing is just tedious instead of mysterious or enticing.
Okay, so the movie is clearly making itself out to be a downbeat affair, and the narrative takes a while to get going. Once it DOES get going though, does the movie get better? I’ll say that it does indeed become more enjoyable, but there are still issues with the way that it’s telling its story. The movie has a bad case of not knowing who this movie is actually about… or it’s a movie that wants to eschew the idea of there BEING a main character in favor of telling a story about people. I’m not sure which one though as the movie is clearly presenting itself to be a film of “big ideas”, but even as a narrative that doesn’t want to have a main character it doesn’t do a great job of conveying it. Gabriel is absolutely the person we follow for the first act of the movie with John Goodman being a secondary protagonist (unclear if they are good or bad) and a very small smattering of others who get a minute or two of screen time. Then the movie locks Gabriel in a subway for the entire second act and the film starts following people we either have never seen before or who we only saw for brief snippets in scenes that I felt were overly cryptic. From there we watch an elaborate plan unfold (cinematically similar to a heist but with a much different objective) as these characters we don’t know go to places we don’t know to do things we’re not sure about with the goal of… something idealistic. Again, MAYBE this was the vibe the filmmakers wanted to convey, but I couldn’t really enjoy the intricate unfolding of this plan because I didn’t have any investment in the characters carrying it out or a clear idea of what the end goal was supposed to be. I mean I understood what was going to HAPPEN at the end, but what happened NEXT never felt all that clear to me so my investment could only go so far. Now to pull back a bit here and give it a bit of praise, these scenes are pretty intense as we get closer and closer to the last steps of the plan where even the slightest crack can destroy it all, and it is dare I say fun in those moments, but the thing is we’ve seen these kinds of plans play out in other better movies like the rather recent Widows or even Logan Lucky which I was kind of harsh on but looks SO much better after seeing a similarly obscure plan come together in this film.
So now we get to the third act where everything comes together as the movie explains to us exactly what has been going on up to this point, and I guess now is a good time to tentatively try to talk about the politics of the movie which frankly I’m not looking forward to doing. So the first question is, does the big wrap up explanation at the end make the entire story up to this point make sense? Absolutely. Without a doubt, the movie does a fine job of breaking down everything we saw and didn’t understand up to this point and telling us how it all fits into the narrative. The scene where John Goodman walks into a room, sits down for fifteen seconds, and then says something like “I don’t have much time”? Now I know why that happened! Does that make the movie better or even a great movie to watch a second time? For me personally, I would still say no because if you’re gonna hinge the entire narrative on a mystery that’s wrapped up at the end, it has to be interesting and engaging in other ways to compensate, and the overtly dour aesthetics of this movie just don’t do it for me where I can enjoy not knowing what’s going on until they decide to tell me. Also, when you REALLY know what this movie is about from start to finish, I will say that I was uncomfortable with its messaging. Now maybe I SHOULDN’T feel uncomfortable and having any reservations here proves that I’m some Bourgeoisie capitalist bootlicker who’s brainwashed by a fascist society into fearing necessary action, but this movie goes into some DARK areas even if I agree with their overall positions. I mean look, I’m a middle class white guy who’s barely conscious enough of my immediate surroundings, but I can’t really go with a movie that, though its framing, glorifies suicide and bombings in service of causing massive societal upheaval; none of which is helped by the fact that the primary threat are non-human entities as the aliens are… well, UTTERLY ALIEN! They don’t talk, they don’t interact with humans other than in aggressive and deadly ways, we barely even see them and don’t get glimpses of their society, and the movie uses all of this to make it so there’s no emotional stake for the audience in blowing them the hell up along with the human collaborators who I GUESS deserve it for failing to stop them even though the humans already lost the war and what the hell else can a politician do when confronted with an enemy like that? The revolution in this movie that this group of people are fighting for is righteous and cathartic (if bittersweet) which to me feels far too close to propaganda that frankly is often evoked by the fascists; the hope for a glorious death to kill the inhuman “Other” and those who would defend them.
Egh… I’m probably not smart enough to wade into these discussions in the first place, but to that point if this movie is for anyone other than those who want the bloody revolution to happen (no doubt one that will affect minorities and the differently abled first and foremost FYI) then I don’t think it does a good job of conveying that message to anyone other than the most committed. Then again, if the filmmakers ARE that committed to the message, then why would they even care if someone like me enjoyed it anyway? I feel like Sorry to Bother You managed to get these ideas across SO much better and managed to do it with humor, grace, and humanity while this one just has rage and determination; not bad qualities in and of themselves, but the application here feels… uncomfortable. I certainly wouldn’t recommend watching it, but I’m interested to see how others react to it and hopefully I can learn something from those reactions in my quest to be a better film critic. Or maybe I’m right on the money with this movie and it’s just lousy! It may be a bit selfish, but I am kind of hoping for the latter.