‘Civil War’ can’t decide what it’s fighting for

April 23, 2024, 11:52 p.m.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques. The review contains spoilers for “Civil War.”

Alex Garland’s “Civil War” (2024) is a visually stunning, surface-level thrill ride, but it ultimately proves to be just as hollow as its characters.

A24 is a movie studio known for its hidden gems, films that feature jaw-dropping action sets or make you question your very existence. “Civil War,” the studio’s latest release, made history as its most expensive movie yet with a $50 million budget. That’s a relatively small number for blockbuster movies — but in all honesty, those $50 million could have been better allocated to produce a more memorable film.

The film follows a group of journalists as they make their way from New York to Washington, D.C. to interview and photograph the president of the United States as the country is ravaged by a modern-day civil war. Along the way, they face gunshots, hanging bodies and mass graves.

One aspect that the film accomplishes seamlessly is capturing what it would be like to be a war photojournalist. There is an intensity that never lets go, scenes that leave you in shock and the aftermath of it all makes you question your own humanity. “Civil War” is an experience that explores human nature and the cost of war.

As a whole, the actors do an admirable job with the roles they are given, and Garland knows how to capture their performances well on camera. I loved the camera shots that mimicked what the journalists would see through their viewfinder; one of the characters would shoot the pictures, whether in DSLR or in black and white, and the audience would see those exact shots displayed in IMAX glory, which was truly a treat. 

Yet amazing style will never make up for basic caricatures. These characters feel hollow, and the story disappointingly thin. 

While the characters in the film are likable to some extent, they lack any sense of character development. Kristen Dunst’s protagonist is a clear standout in the film, but I couldn’t tell you the name of the character she plays — or any of the characters featured in the film, for that matter. 

This lack of connection hurts the narrative, especially since Dunst’s character is meant to be the heart of the film. She plays a war-hardened journalist who seems to have given up on believing in the good nature of humans, and while Dunst does a marvelous job embodying what the character has seen, I didn’t feel emotionally attached. Her character’s journey fails to be centered, and coupled with only two emotional scenes, audiences feel estranged to her character — she feels like a stranger amid the action. 

This is a true pity, considering that there are moments showing the emotional impact this movie could have had. For example, Jesse Plemons’s character, a minor antagonist, delivers a truly frightening performance in his only scene. One feels that they are in danger, viscerally unable to move. That moment showed just how much more impactful the movie could have been through more strongly defined characters.

Strikingly, the film lacks any clear political inclinations, which I think is a valid way of approaching the film — less of a political film, and more a film about how humans hurt each other. There are more questions than answers regarding how the war began in the first place, but ultimately, “Civil War” appears to be intended as an anti-war movie. 

The devastating nature of the death shown on screen is terrifying. We see just how ugly war is, but Garland drops any momentum with this anti-war rhetoric with his lack of conclusive ending and the upbeat music that plays during some of these action sequences. Some have indicated that these tracks are meant to contrast the gore seen on screen, but they seem more like an excuse for some awesome needle drops — making the anti-war message feel muddled and sidelined for the sake of a captivating scene. The classic rock music panders to audiences and makes the action stand out, but in doing so audiences forget the purpose of the cruelty seen on screen.

The premise of the film is undeniably interesting and timely. In spite of this, the film manages to barely scrape by as a thoughtless thriller. Maybe that is the kind of movie that A24 wanted to make in order to bring in more revenue, but I don’t think that profit and artfulness are mutually exclusive.

It’s sad to see so much wasted potential — at the end of the film, you will have only learned how amazing of an actress Kristen Dunst is.

Anthony Martinez Rosales is the vol. 265 Screen desk editor.

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