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  • Writer's pictureDenise Breen

Civil War - is an intriguing premise but is it too ambitious?

3 out of 5

Alex Garland's latest film “Civil War” presents one of the most intriguing premises of the year, maybe of the last several years: what if Texas and California were to secede from the United States and join forces to wage war against their former home country? In short, everyone would lose.

Kirsten Dunst stars as Lee Smith, a hardened photographer. She’s not without her compassionate side, giving her life-saving press jacket to stranger and wannabe press photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) during a riot in New York City. But otherwise, she is fearlessly committed to bringing America the truth about the war. She and her colleague Joel (Wagner Moura) set off to Washington D.C. to get what will likely be the final interview with the President (Nick Offerman) before advancing Western forces inevitably take him. The two are joined by occasionally-annoying tagalong Jessie and veteran reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson, always a great scene-stealing presence, and here making the most of his most high-profile role to date).

Much of “Civil War” is a glorified road trip film largely set in rural areas, which I suppose makes sense since the film can’t afford to show major cities getting torn to pieces in every scene. But the small-scale villains are even scarier than the large-scale ones, with fewer authorities than ever around to keep them in check. The team visit a gas station where thieves are tortured for as long as the captors can have fun torturing them. Even worse is a militia group filling a mass grave of civilians that were probably not killed as an act of war, but whose disappearance will probably be lazily blamed on the war.

“Civil War” can’t be bothered to answer all the questions it raises, like those involving the origins of the war. Given that Texas and California are the states that seceded, I can only assume that immigration was a major factor, though details are left unclear. To be fair, it's one of the good aspects of the film. You're never sure whose side you are on, who the goodies are, or the baddies.

“Civil War” might be onto something as a first chapter in a series that will have many sequels and prequels. On its own, however, I found it bland. There are certainly some powerful scenes, like one with an unbilled Jesse Plemmons as a militia member chillingly doling out death sentences according to his whims.

The stars of Moura, Spaeny, and Henderson are deservedly going to rise thanks to their performances here, though I can’t be the only one who walked out of the cinema thinking that Spaeny’s character was responsible for too many deaths for her character to be truly likeable. I can’t say the film lives up to the ambitiousness of its premise, but with more worldbuilding in future installments, there’s potential here for a memorable dystopian future.

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