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Review: Sci-fi thriller ‘Captive State’ more dense than tense

Review: Sci-fi thriller ‘Captive State’ more dense than tense
John Goodman, left, and Ashton Sanders in the movie "Captive State." (Parrish Lewis / Focus Features)

In “Captive State” aliens have taken over the world (as they will), but it’s the viewers stuck watching this messy, lugubrious sci-fi thriller who may feel like the ones being held captive.

The film is a nervously-shot, dizzying hodgepodge of ideas, symbolism and conceits — and a bummer from start to finish. Reviewers were denied advance screenings of this one for good reason.

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It’s Chicago, 2027, nine years after an alien invasion in which, let’s just say, the aliens won. Now called “legislators,” these extraterrestrials apparently live underground (what, cheaper rents?) and they make the laws, such as they are. Most Chicagoans, including the police and government officials, seem to be on board (or “collaborators”) with the testy aliens — authoritarianism has, ahem, been good for the economy and unemployment.

Still, alien activity has devastated much of the city, parts of which look bombed-out in typical dystopian-movie chic. Plus, newer communication and electronic technologies are now obsolete. (On the upside, print newspapers are back in vogue.)

Oh, and the aliens have implanted worm-like trackers in the necks of all the humans, which are a mess to extract as you’ll see. Yes, it’s a surveillance state.

At the same time there’s a faction of human insurgents planning an assault on the aliens at a government-sponsored stadium rally (to fete said aliens), one that shamelessly plays like the giant propagandist event that it is.

Are there any specific people in the story we need to care about? That would be yes and no: There are people, we don’t care about them.

These characters in search of a soul, much less a personality and even the slightest sense of irony, include William Mulligan (John Goodman, dour and one-note), a veteran city cop (conflicted, natch) tracing the insurgents; Gabriel (“Moonlight’s” Ashton Sanders), a factory drone orphaned in the initial alien attack (seen in the film’s prologue); Rafe (Jonathan Majors), Gabriel’s older brother, long thought dead but actually alive and leading the uprising; and Jane Doe (Vera Farmiga, wasted in a handful of enigmatic scenes), a prostitute with a penchant for Nat King Cole records and, it seems, Mulligan.

There are many more characters fashioned out of cardboard here, including others in that eclectic band of rebels, as well as a host of “collaborators” distinguished only by the familiar faces of their portrayers (Kevin Dunn, Alan Ruck, James Ransone, Kevin J. O’Connor).

It all may have been a bit more accessible if the confusing, clunkily-structured script by director Rupert Wyatt (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) and Erica Beeney stayed focused on one lead character and a compelling central relationship instead of jumping all over the map. There’s something to the Mulligan-Gabriel dynamic — and even what passes for a bit of dimension here — but it’s too choppily and awkwardly rendered.

Also, the few times we see the aliens, they’re so murkily or partially filmed it’s hard to get a handle on them beyond that they resemble massive porcupines or cactuses. I know: Cactupines!

As for any requisite tension or thrills, forget it. Same goes for the movie itself.

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‘Captive State’

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

Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes

Playing: In general release

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