Taut, grounded sci-fi parables are a delicacy too sparingly served by cinematic chefs resigned to plating intellectual leftovers. Despite a substantively delayed release and let’s go with “unenthusiastic” marketing, Captive State still made goo-goo eyes at those of us who have been hankering for a spiritual successor to District 9 for a decade. Sadly, writer Erica Beeney and writer/director Rupert Wyatt deliver a clunky political metaphor that is somehow simultaneously both too complicated and too stupid. Featuring a truly great alien character design and at least 45 truly quality minutes, Captive State is a modestly entertaining affair with an aftertaste so delicious, you’ll be frustrated the meal you ate didn’t taste as good as your belch afterwards.

Aliens dominate and make the whole of the earth submissive over the title credits. Given the state of current affairs, it seems like that’s a generous timeframe for humanity’s collective ability to resist. Nearly a decade later, government authorities report to the extraterrestrial “Legislators.” William Mulligan (John Goodman) is trying to suss out any last vestige of a terrorist cell led by Rafe Drummond (Jonathan Majors). He leans on Rafe’s brother, Gabriel (Ashton Sanders), who finds himself unknowingly at the center of a newly planned attack.

The bomb plot is convoluted in ways both maddening and, fittingly, captivating. Imagine the following in Bill Hader’s Stefon voice. Captive State has everything: terrorist pigeons, wiretapped prostitutes, a twist so painfully obvious it is actually drawn and hung on a wall, and a sticky bomb, which is that thing of when an alien’s ectoplasmic C4 is kept in a toilet. A victim of wickedly uneven pacing, if the film’s second half had been its first half, and it instead had a second half that explored the events lightly hinted at over the credits, Captive State would have been more than stat-padding for Vera Farmiga’s IMDB page.

At the top of the list of things that Captive State nails is their wicked murder-aliens. Spikey beasts that move in epileptic tremors, their opening introduction promises a much, much better movie that never arrives. The cast is solid, down to the obligatory “government goob” turn from Kevin Dunn, who probably sees a therapist about the number of such roles he is offered. None of the film’s components is wholly broken or irritating, they just don’t come together harmoniously. It’s like a choir composed of perfectly functioning car alarms.

Captive State goes out of its way to keep the alien-controlled earth totally recognizable. This was likely as much a cost-saving concern as it was about ensuring that nobody will miss the real-world messages about resisting authority, domination of the many by the few and the oppression of living in a world that is continually micro-monitored. Those are good messages in a movie with good actors and good moments. But not even alien math can make good plus good plus good equal great.

Grade = B-

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