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  • Writer's pictureIlana Davis

'Civil War': Alex Garland's Dystopian Warning for America

Updated: Jun 20

"All Empires Fall"

Still image from Civil War

In perhaps the greatest marketing campaign of a movie, ever, Alex Garland’s latest film, Civil War, is coming to theaters on April 12, 2024. The prolific screenwriter and director has always had his pulse on hot topics of societal shifts and developments - Ex Machina, Devs, 28 Days Later - but this upcoming film feels different; almost too real and true to ongoing conflicts in The United States. 

A synopsis of Civil War from IMDb reads: “[it's] 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.”

A Warning?

Is Civil War a warning? What impact will this have on audiences, if any? The trailer alone is filled with harrowing imagery of fallen states and patrolling militia. California and Texas join forces as the nation crumbles into itself. It is, indeed, a civil war where we witness the fall from the start. Though, according to The Hollywood Reporter, what led up to the film’s titular war is unclear - this uncertainty only fuels fear and questioning even more. 

There’s no shortage of films that feature rebellion or disruptions to social, economic, or political catastrophe as they relate to the United States; Captain America: Civil War, Leave the World Behind, The Hunger Games - to name a few from the past decade alone. These entries are meant to instill as much fear as they do hope. A warning sign and call to action. 

“The warnings [about the country falling apart] all out there, but for some reason they don’t get any traction,” Garland states, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “[I wondered,] ‘Is it the polarization? Is it just that we are not able to absorb any information because of the position we’ve already taken?’ Hence, making a movie that pulls the polarization out of it.”

As the nation confronts its current circumstances, it is the American populace who lay victim to tribulations seemingly out of their control. And yet, we are somehow meant to suffer the consequences. There are two outcomes here - because, as we have seen in recent years, it’s easier to submit to the better of two evils, rather than a third or even fourth option: rebellion or war. These are essentially the same thing, though it differs greatly in how, and why, the people are fighting. 

At a glance, it makes sense to project current events onto these steps; from the last year to the turn of the millennium. That’s because we can. Whether we recognize it or not - to some degree, it’s difficult to subject oneself to ignorance - the nation is in turmoil and collectively, we are both trying to fight it, mend it, and, ultimately, ignore it. 

The Election of 1860

As states continue to battle it out - metaphorically, at least, for now - issues arise that are reminiscent of the last Civil War in the United States. Of course, there will always be a danger in looking to the past and projecting that onto the present. But it’s also dangerous not to. 

It’s not as simple as a battle between the North and South (though, at times, it does appear this way). Yes, the Civil War that took place from 1861 to 1865 was rooted in this geographical divide, but its foundation came from the growing sentiment of an overarching divide within the nation: industry v. agriculture, rising tariffs, slavery, and - most relevant - the election of Abraham Lincoln (which resulted from a split vote within the majority-Southern Democratic party).  

A crash course on what led to the Civil War, from Hank Green - because I can’t explain it better than him: 

Basically, the Civil War of 1861 came down to three factors: Economic (industrial v. farming, rising tariffs), Cultural (slavery and the rights of slaves), and State Rights (a fight for power between state and federal governments). Sounds eerily familiar…

Why Now? 

Garland’s depiction of life during a Civil War is bound to instill fear in audiences, and for good reason. The 2024 election is a major turning point in our country; among conversations between politicians and voters are, in no particular order: immigration, abortion, economic disparity, and foreign affairs. There is a growing concern that the values of states oppose the sentiments of the federal government. This, in its most basic form, lays the groundwork for a revolt. 

“I think all of the topics in [Civil War] have been a part of a huge public debate for years and years,” Garland told THR. "These debates have been growing and growing in volume and awareness, but none of that is secret or unknown to almost anybody.” 

In what’s sure to be a tumultuous year marked by economic, political, and social battles throughout the country, the idea of civil war seems inevitable - a perfect butterfly effect for catastrophe. But does it need to be this way? Maybe Garland’s film offers warnings and wisdom, or it can be yet another tale of accepting our inevitable fate as a nation. 

But again, Civil War is simply another fictitious entry into a catalog of recent media and literature that takes inspiration from perceived fears - which, ultimately, can simply be consumed as entertainment.


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