There will always be room for movies like “Captive State,” the latest from director Rupert Wyatt, whose “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” kicked off one of the best movie trilogies of the last few decades. In a time when most science fiction movies are defined by flashy special effects, galaxy-spanning adventure and apocalyptic stakes, a story that shows more of a boots-on-the-ground perspective of an alien invasion is a welcome change of pace. Like last year’s “Overlord,” which falls into the same category, its writing can occasionally be disappointingly shallow, but the thrills and thematic resonance it packs more than make up for it.
The story takes place in Chicago as aliens land on Earth and quickly establish themselves as the new rulers of the planet. Years later, a young man named Gabriel (Ashton Sanders, “Moonlight”) finds himself embroiled in the plans of a resistance cell, Phoenix, who are planning an attack that they hope will jumpstart a revolution that will free Chicago and the world at large. Complicating things are the human collaborators of the invaders, led by Police Detective William Mulligan (John Goodman, “10 Cloverfield Lane”), who has been assigned with exposing Phoenix and putting an end to their plans once and for all.
From the beginning, “Captive State” isn’t heading for some massive showdown where the best of humanity is pitted against an invading force in some sort of last stand. It’s much smaller than that, concerned with how even a small group of people can light the match that starts a revolution. The parallels to real-world events and resistance movements draw themselves. It’s far from meditative, but it’s smarter than many of its mid-budget brethren, which trade thoughtfulness for shlock, and packs a couple solid twists as well as the simple pleasure of watching a well-planned espionage mission come together as it does in the film’s standout, white-knuckle sequence.
It certainly isn’t without its glaring flaws, as even its best moments are stymied by a lack of characterization among the supporting cast. Many characters are barely given names, let alone motivations and personalities, and when your story rests upon the idea that viewers will care about these characters as they face off against a force they can’t possibly hope to defeat all on their own — that’s hard to forgive. The performances do a great deal in this regard — Goodman in particular brings welcome gravitas and complex emotion to Mulligan — but there’s still a piece missing without which “Captive State” suffers.
For the most part, however, Sanders’s latest is a gripping story of resistance told well. It’s the sort of story we simply don’t see a lot of in the sci-fi genre and in general, so willing are we to eschew it for its more expansive contemporaries, and while I get just as hyped as anyone when discussing the next big blockbuster (we’re a little over a month out from “Endgame,” people, it’s happening), films like “Captive State” that focus on story over action will always have a special place in my heart and will hopefully continue to find a place on the release calendar.