‘Civil War’ movie review: Alex Garland’s fractured dystopia

In Alex Garland’s new cinematic venture, Civil War, the United States is a nation in chaos. Gone is the unity once taken for granted, replaced with a battleground where secessionists relentlessly challenge a crumbling federal authority. A leader on edge practices a deceptive speech, knowing outside his safe walls lie oppression and violence echoing a similar disturbing vision set by Garland in 28 Days Later— his earlier dystopian thriller.

But there’s a twist. While Boyle’s film painted chaos resulting from a viral epidemic, the disarray in Civil War is shrouded in mystery. The exact nature of the contagion—be it actual or metaphorical—remains elusive, a conundrum Garland opts to leave unsolved. It’s a thought-provoking choice by the filmmaker, who has gifted audiences with thought-provoking sci-fi like Ex Machina, Annihilation, the riveting series Devs, and his darker 2022 tale, Men. America is depicted as beyond salvation, challenging viewers to make sense of its downfall.

Civil War ventures beyond Garland’s habitual sci-fi territory, into a world where dystopia reigns. The film’s future America is a land upended by violence. Skyline-engulfing smog and explosions at demonstrations highlight the turmoil. A coalition named ‘Western Forces’, comprised of unlikely partners like Texas and California, ready their troops against Washington D.C. The narrative’s commander-in-chief, portrayed by a beardless Nick Offerman, is depicted as a tyrannical eccentric ensconced in the White House, stubbornly clinging onto power and assaulting his citizens—a portrayal that may draw uneasy laughter in Indian cinemas.

Cailee Spaeny in ‘Civil War’

Cailee Spaeny in ‘Civil War’

The tale unfolds through the eyes of journalists on the front lines. Kirsten Dunst’s Lee, a battle-hardened photojournalist, and her adventurous co-worker Joel, played by Wagner Moura, set off to capture the president’s words and visage. Accompanied by fledgling photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) and seasoned reporter Sammy (a commendable Stephen McKinley Henderson), the group’s journey from one devastated city to another epitomizes the perilous nature of reporting in such conditions.

Civil War (English)

Director: Alex Garland

Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Nick Offerman, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson

Run-time: 109 minutes

Storyline: A team of journalists navigate through a tumultuous, future America engulfed in armed upheaval

At every destination, they face expected hazards amidst the unsettling atmosphere crafted by Garland and director of photography Rob Hardy. Jesse Plemons notably appears as a menacing figure clutching an assault weapon and sporting red sunglasses—a sight to behold. Plemons’ fleeting appearance encapsulates the dystopian essence of Garland’s interpretation of societal breakdown.

Dunst delivers a fortified portrayal of Lee—proficient and compassionate, yet visibly worn. She partners effectively with Spaeny’s naïve but eager mentee. Their journey brings them face to face with the harrowing reality of war journalism and the moral dilemmas that come with it. Lee reminds us, “We record, so other people ask,” despite questioning her own motivations and purpose.

Having premiered at the SXSW and been showcased at the Red Lorry Film Festival in Mumbai, Civil War has seen mostly high praise but has not escaped criticism for its ambiguous political stance. When questioned, Garland stands by his choice to not tie the film to specific contemporary issues, such as gun legislation or political division. He aims for broader cinema—seeking dialogue and unity, as explained to Time magazine. Yet, skeptics exist, questioning whether Garland’s film truly engages with the current American climate or simply subscribes to Hollywood’s oft-sought ‘common ground’ to ensure box office success.

The film’s villainous depiction of a generic authoritarianism, and lines that reflect the general turmoil of the nation, suggest a sweeping range, yet they fail to deliver a heated critique of the domestic state of the nation. Despite its extensive reach, Civil War portrays a narrative that remains notably detached.

Civil War is set to reach theatre audiences in India on April 19.

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