Year:  2024

Director:  Alex Garland

Rated:  MA

Release:  11 April 2024

Distributor: Roadshow

Running time: 109 minutes

Worth: $15.00
FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth

Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Sonoya Mizuno, Nick Offerman, Jesse Plemons

… a gripping, bleak and often uncomfortable experience …

America. It’s a whole thing, eh? The big daddy of western culture, it informs the behaviour of much of the world, in ways both positive and negative. A lot of the entertainment media we consume is from the US and much of it is bloody great. On the other hand, the rise of anti-expert insanity, divisive politics and weaponised dumbfuckery is… less than ideal. In Civil War, the latest film from writer/director Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Men), the end result of the growing American factionalism is explored, and friends, it sure ain’t pretty.

Civil War takes place at some unspecified point in America’s near future. An ongoing conflict has divided the country into zones, some of them quite benign and others… less so. We’re following combat photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) as she embarks on a mission with cocky journo Joel (Wagner Moura), veteran reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and aspiring snapper, Jessie (Cailee Spaeny). That mission is to go to Washington and interview the populist President (Nick Offerman) before he is inevitably defeated by the various forces aligned against him.

Structurally speaking, Civil War is a road movie, an epic journey across the dark heart of America, whose strip malls have become battlegrounds and paranoid discord is the order of the day. Garland’s effective direction and sound design really nails the ‘danger behind every corner’ vibe and some of the battle scenes are genuinely gripping and visceral, particularly if you’re experiencing the bloody thing in IMAX. Performances are rock solid, with Dunst’s world-weary turn extremely compelling and young Cailee Spaeny doing a tremendous job showcasing the exhilarating, terrifying and addictive nature of living life so close to the edge.

The script, however, is a little less successful, feeling more like a series of vignettes rather than a cohesive whole and lacking a strong mission statement beyond “war is pretty shithouse, maybe try to avoid this, yeah, America?” Don’t get us wrong, that’s a strong message, and doubly resonant in a US election year (truly the most annoying of times, politically speaking), but it’s not much of a story. Also, Garland’s trick of writing superb openings and slightly disappointing third acts (see Ex Machina, Annihilation and Sunshine) is in full ascendance, with a conclusion that almost works… but not quite.

One gets the feeling that Civil War is Alex Garland’s cry for sanity, a plea from the side of reason, that if we don’t pull together, we may end up living in a society that resembles the grim one in this film. It’s a lofty goal, but one that’s just a few frustrating steps from being excellent. So, we have to settle for “very good”, which is okay, but it’s hard not to mourn the better film that was probably another script draft or two away.

Still and all, Civil War is a gripping, bleak and often uncomfortable experience with much to recommend it. It’s well acted and superbly directed, and will keep you glued to your seat. Hopefully the people who need to see it do so, and movies like this remain in the speculative fiction genre and not “based on a true story”.