Civil War – Writer-director Alex Garland takes us on a journey across a dystopian future America

Following a team of military-embedded journalists as they race against time to reach DC before rebel factions descend upon the White House, Alex Garland’s film imagines, with both grounded intimacy and at times terrifying scale, the very human consequences of the loss of this shared idea of a nation. In this America, when the fabric of society has been torn apart, there is only the individual, unsparing drive to survive.

“People talk about collateral damage in war — if you are fighting a war in a built-up area, civilians will get killed,” Garland says matter-of-factly. “You often hear generals talking in those terms in a sort of factual way, which is objectively correct. It is also true that you get, on a more domestic scale, a kind of terrible savagery.”

The dark thrill and provocation of Garland’s film is his radical repurposing of the images, tools, and euphemisms of modern war — airstrikes, civilian targets, collateral damage — onto American soil. “That is any nation that gets into conflict, whether it’s civil war or war with a neighbor — that’s just what war is now,” he says.

Like the eerily empty streets of London in Garland’s screenplay for the 2002 genre-redefining zombie film 28 Days Later, familiar and iconic images, from the streets of New York to the nation’s capitol, are radically recontextualized here by the adrenalized action that he stages on their grounds. The Amerian landscape, juxtaposed against the stark clash of violence, suddenly feels surreal and startlingly real all at once.
“If you are letting something slide towards that state, just be aware that’s what the state looks like,” Garland says. “The famous phrase, if you forget history, you’re doomed to repeat it — it’s important to understand that nobody is immune. No country is immune from that. Because it’s nothing to do with
countries, it’s to do with people.”

The film’s vast scope as the war sprawls and spreads across the states, feels startlingly real. This is no dystopia: it’s a visceral, bracing depiction of what warfare actually looks and sounds like.

“I don’t think these dangers are abstract. I think they’re real,” Garland says. “I also think the dangers manifest earlier than a full-scale disintegration into civil war. You don’t need to get that far for there to be really existentially serious problems. In some places it is actually happening. There are elements which are
not speculative.”

Civil War takes place in a near-future America that has split into multiple factions embroiled in a civil war. The Western Forces, an armed alliance of states rebelling against the federal government, is days away from pushing the capitol to a surrender. In the hopes of getting a final interview with the president (Nick Offerman), Lee (Kirsten Dunst), a calloused combat photographer who’s captured atrocities and destabilization across the globe, travels to the White House with a small caravan of journalists, including a young, aspiring photographer named Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) who she reluctantly comes to mentor. As they travel across the country, the film, in some ways as much a road movie as it is a war film, offers an alternate reality that, with increasing disquiet, reveals itself to be the kind of warning flare Lee has sent out her entire life. “This movie feels like a fable to me — like a cautionary fable of what happens when people don’t communicate with each other,” Dunst says. “When nobody listens to each other, when you silence journalists, when we lose a shared truth.”

“War movies find it very, very difficult to not sensationalize violence,” he says. “Most of the anti-war movies in a way are not really anti-war movies. They have so much to do with camaraderie and courage. It’s not that they are trying to be romantic, but they just become romantic. They sort of can’t help it because courage is romantic and tragedy in a way is romantic.”

He points to films like Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory or the harrowing Soviet war epic Come and See as rare exceptions. Garland wanted Civil War to be a decidedly anti-war film, where the charge of the action pushes you to the edge of your seat, but is ultimately animated by raw horror, rather than a sensationalized thrill.

“I took a particular approach to it, which was to do with naturalism,” Garland says. “For example, when people are shot, they don’t have squibs on them. You don’t see a huge fountain of blood. You don’t see big blood splatters up the wall behind them. They just fall down. After they’ve fallen down, blood then
leaks across the ground if they’ve been lying there for the right amount of time.”

Garland intentionally wanted to embody the action through “the grammar of images that people may have seen, for example, on the news. The grammar is less cinema and more documentary a lot of the time, which was a way of making the violence just brutal. There’s nothing really glamorous about a mass grave. There’s nothing really romantic about it.” The cinematography reflected the vérité feel of actual combat, eschewing the clean camerawork that Garland has used on previous films like Annihilation.

“There are very few shots in this film that use tracks and dollies and the normal architecture of shooting a film,” he says. “We were using very small handheld cameras which have an ability to self-stabilize to a degree if that’s what you want.”

“That more handheld look when it comes to combat stuff, in my mind that’s the way I view things,” says Ray Mendoza, the military advisor who Garland worked with closely on the film. “Watching these handhelds — it’s more visceral. That’s how you view your life, when things are fast and whippety.”
Capturing the sweeping scale of horror in Garland’s script meant threading this disquieting sense of realism through everything from the production design to the very sound of gunfire.

For all its radicalism, Garland simply hopes that viewers enter with an open mind, leave without feeling alienated, and perhaps consider our own political predicament within this context.

Civil War, in all its chaos and brutality, disintegration and division, is where that kind of thinking can, and often does, lead to. It’s a startling, gripping, and ultimately terrifying vision that Garland believes is necessary as a wake-up call to the war that we perhaps refuse to see, that he sees us sleepwalking into.

In making a genuinely singular American war movie, it also happens to be, in an already bracing career, perhaps his most audaciously rebellious work yet.

“I grew up in the post-hippie-punk era, and there’s a part of me that just wants to do something subversive,” he says. “I can’t help it. It’s just an instinct. I was taught it too young. I never quite got shot of it. I suppose it’s like, if you’re going to fucking do this, just fucking do it.”

“The modern state of civil war is a fractured collapse across the board,” Garland says. “This is not a repetition of the previous Civil War. I don’t think America or the rest of the world is at danger of the clear demarcations of the previous Civil War. That’s not the risk the world faces. We are facing a disintegration risk.”

“It’s a global problem,” the English-born filmmaker notes, but one that he was particularly interested in, and frightened by, as it’s been stoked in America. From afar, Garland could see with more painful acuity the instability of America and the stakes at play not only for Americans themselves, but for other nations
caught up in a certain ripple effect he has often witnessed.

“America is so powerful that the rest of the world follows its politics and its elections because they know they will be affected by the outcome,” Garland says. “Countries will have their economies affected, countries may find themselves in armed conflict, countries will have huge sea changes of fortune based
on all sorts of different factors in American politics.”

Despite its intentionally unspecified origin story, the civil war in the film can be traced to a lost thread around the very idea of America — the disintegration of a nation once bound by common history and a shared set of principles.

Alex Garland began his career as a novelist, most famously writing The Beach and Tesseract. He moved into screenwriting with his debut 28 Days Later, directed by Danny Boyle and produced by DNA Films. Garland made his directorial debut in 2015 with Ex Machina, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Original Screenplay along with a BAFTA award for Outstanding British Film, and BAFTA’s Outstanding Debut by a British Director. In 2018, Garland released his second film as writer-director, Annihilation, based on the 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer. His other screenplays include Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, Dredd, and the video game Enslaved: Odyssey to the West which he co-wrote with Tameem Antoniades in 2010. Garland also executive produced 28 Weeks Later. His original 8-part TV series Devs, for which he is the sole writer and director, was released in 2020 by FX Networks. Men, a psychological horror, written and directed by Garland was released in May 2022 by A24 Films. Garland’s most recent film is Civil War.