If near-future science fiction has taught us anything, it’s that humanity is irremediably doomed — either we succumb to rapacious technology or natural disasters of our own making, or an invasion by foes beyond our atmosphere wipes us out or enslaves us. Rupert Wyatt’s “Captive State” adheres to the latter variant but shows no intention of providing entertainment, just an unsatisfying potluck of quasi-relevant, frustration-inducing ideas.
Nine years after first contact, Earth’s governments have surrendered power to the alien overlords, whose spiny-looking leader is known as The Legislator. These creatures are benevolent in the way that a dictator is good to anyone: They’ve delivered stability in exchange for oppression. Up-close, the extraterrestrial enemies read as a crossbreed between a hairy tarantula and a lychee (yes, the tropical Asian fruit).
In response, the unimaginatively named insurgent group Phoenix has emerged and consistently carried out attacks on the “closed zones,” underground areas from which the villains run their resource-draining operation. That’s as much as can be gathered with certainty from the screenplay by Wyatt and Erica Beeney (“The Battle of Shaker Heights”). There may well be written text out there that explains the intricacies of the “Captive State” mythology, but none of it makes it onto the screen.
John Goodman, in a phoned-in chore of a performance similar to others he’s cranked out with ease over the years, plays serious detective William Mulligan, the man tasked with stopping the Chicago cell of the humanist troublemakers. Together with Ashton Sanders (“Moonlight”) as teen rebel Gabriel Drummond, mourning his heroic brother, Goodman functions as the movie’s weak emotional anchor among plenty of even more thinly developed earthlings.
A stilted argument serves as Jonathan Majors’ most noteworthy contribution. Majors is a great actor elsewhere, who’ll get his time in the sun later this year when Sundance hit “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” arrives in theaters. Meanwhile, a wasted Vera Farmiga gets three scenes as a book-smart prostitute, while KiKi Layne (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo. That concludes the list of folks with even a shred of narrative weight.
Even after a full hour of tediously dry yet flagrant setup, the essential points of the film’s premise remain devoid of clarity. Make no mistake, just because a slew of nameless characters are introduced by the minute as if by revolving door, it doesn’t mean the plot gets any more enticing. People walk in and out of frame at such pace, one can only hope they are all wearing pedometers to register their futile efforts to rescue us not from destruction but from boredom. Thrills are few, and they are all in the trailer.
It’s almost impressive the level of insufferable dourness that “Captive State” achieves, both in form and tone. Whatever existential conundrum or socio-political concern it pretends to be compelled by dissolves into a pool of convoluted sequences that pull our attention from the message (whatever that might be) in order to try to figure who is who and what is going on from one cut to the next. A grounded espionage thriller with otherworldly antagonists sounds truly gripping, but this isn’t it.
Wyatt could possibly be making a point about solidarity in the face of a common adversary, or how a committed few can enact change, or maybe even making connections with the current state of affairs, but if that’s the case, it’s all obscured behind dry speeches and mundane filmmaking. Its urban landscapes and washed-out colors do little to add aesthetic singularity or visual allure, although they do fit right in with the lo-fi approach. What’s carried over from other space-invaders chronicles are the primitive sounds that make up their foreign language and a score that reuses eerie audio cues that immediately ring of outer space.
Delving into the purposeless particularities of this self-important snoozer could require an elaborate dissertation. That’s far beyond the attention it warrants. Still, some rather nonsensical quirks of note include the grotesque bugs implanted on mankind to track our every mode — A commentary on cell phones? Who knows. A flammable and transparent organic substance that works in mysterious ways, and the curious notion that aliens hate how humans smell.
Following a major operation during a “unity rally,” where American leaders welcome an alien dignitary, a ridiculous brawl erupts that demonstrates that the movie couldn’t care less about its own rules. These hyper-intelligent alien entities, which we’ve earlier seen pulverize human bodies into bloody dust within seconds, are somehow defeated with a fire extinguisher and a quick strangulation session. Turns out they are no stronger than a regular henchman. (Fun fact: They also look like lychees on the inside.)
Lacking poignancy at every level, what could have been a moderately exciting, if unoriginal, occupation thriller instead becomes a muddled and dispirited disappointment from the director who once earned high praise for “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”