Civil War Asks If Post-Apocalypse Movies Can Feel Too Real for Audiences

Civil War shows the United States on the brink of self-destruction. Will audiences lap it up?

Western Forces in Civil War
Photo: A24

The United States is tearing itself apart in a maelstrom of sectarian divisions. Armed groups freely patrol vast swaths of so-called “sovereign” territory. The constant threat of violence hangs over the country, and states are openly rebelling against the powers of the federal government. The world’s oldest continuous modern democracy seems poised on the brink of melting down.

And, oh yeah, a new movie is coming out: Alex Garland’s Civil War.

While the above scenario is a slightly exaggerated version of what’s actually happening in the U.S. today—and, it seems, for the past eight years—one can squint a little and imagine that it’s not really that far off from the truth. The nation is more polarized than ever before, trust in the government, along with institutions like the press and the Supreme Court, is at an all-time low, and everyday Americans are viewing each other with suspicion and disdain.

To many, it appears like a slow-rolling national apocalypse that could well end up leading to the scenario posited in the new film from Garland, the British writer-director whose previous forays into speculative fiction include acclaimed works such as 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Ex Machina, Annihilation, Men, and the TV series Devs. In Garland’s film, the meltdown has happened. An extremely unpopular third-term or more president (Nick Offerman) is ensconced in the White House, and the country has split into pieces. Various factions—including an unlikely union between Texas and California—are out to reclaim the nation with armed forces massing outside Washington D.C. for a final push to overthrow a would-be tyrant.

Ad – content continues below

Into this furnace step four journalists, the hard-bitten Lee (Kirsten Dunst), the charming Joel (Wagner Moura), the world-weary Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and the novice Jessie (Cailee Spaeny). Their efforts to document what is almost certain to be the complete collapse of the U.S. test each of them in ways that challenge their emotional and physical stamina as well as their devotion to their jobs. Civil War doesn’t explain much about how the country got to this terrible place; the catastrophe has already happened, and Garland’s film asks, “We’re here. Do you like it? What will you do about it?”

Has Apocalyptic Cinema Changed?

Civil War is, in some ways, just the latest movie to predict doom and disaster for the U.S. if not the world at large (although the global ripple effect of the U.S. and its economy drowning in a morass of authoritarianism and sectarian war would no doubt be severe). Audiences have seemingly always flocked to see films in which ordinary people struggle to survive calamity, going back to a 1901 British short film called Fire! Tidal waves slammed into New York City in 1933’s Deluge while 1936’s San Francisco depicted the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake in the city of the same name in spectacular, horrifying fashion.

Since then we’ve experienced big screen disasters natural, supernatural, and geopolitical: more tidal waves, meteors, quakes, tsunamis, nuclear conflagrations, terrorist attacks, giant monsters rampaging, alien invasions, global pandemics, and, of course, zombie plagues. But lately, things feel different. Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion was a realistic look at the worldwide spread of a new virus that was chilling in both its portrayal of societal breakdown and its scientific accuracy. It also rather shockingly sent popular stars like Kate Winslet and Gwyneth Paltrow to grim onscreen deaths without a relatively triumphant ending to ease us out of the theater (certainly more fantastical TV shows like The Walking Dead also picked up on that thread, offing main characters with barely a moment’s notice).

“If you watch the movies about tsunamis or earthquakes or volcanoes, there’s usually someone who I call the everyman who somehow is the unlikely hero,” says Dr. Christina Scott, Associate Professor of Social Psychology at California’s Whittier College. “He usually is white, estranged from his spouse, and has kids that he has to finally step up and save… I think maybe the movies are now being made differently. We’re not getting that kind of satisfying ending where the estranged husband gets back with his wife and his children, who love him now, and he’s going to find happiness and peace. And maybe that’s part of the post-pandemic response that we really aren’t able to find those endings as satisfying.”

Do Audiences Want Fantasy or Reality?

Without going into spoilers or details, Civil War certainly doesn’t end with the status quo, let alone the United States as we’ve known it, restored as everyone settles back down for the next Super Bowl. The spectacle of Jan. 6 and its violent attempt to overthrow a free and fair election, combined with the still-fresh memory of the pandemic bringing the country to its knees may now make it impossible for films like this to offer any kind of even halfway positive resolution.

“I do wonder whether audience appetite for fictional apocalypses has been damped by real-world events since 2016, though of course what’s going on is always going to inspire writers and filmmakers to tell stories about these things,” says novelist and film critic Kim Newman, author of Apocalypse Movies: End of the World Cinema. “I suspect that the defining horror franchises of our era are the Purge and Quiet Place films—the one pre-Trump, the other pre-pandemic—because they caught the mood of big horrors, the culture wars and lockdown, a little in advance of everyone having to cope with them.”

Ad – content continues below

To be sure, Civil War is clearly speculative fiction: for one thing, that improbable alliance between California, the bluest of blue states, and Texas, the crimson king of red states, is a pairing that no one living in America today can quite imagine happening at this point in time. While the specter of American civil disintegration or even war seems closer in 2024 than it has at probably any point since the 1860s, at least this aspect of the film stops it from suddenly morphing into a documentary any time soon.

Professor Scott believes this element will keep the movie’s semi-realistic allegory from turning into a “how-to” seminar.

“I think that’s always a concern, but I’m also equally concerned that someone’s going to watch Psycho and pick up a butcher knife and a wig and go to town,” she says. “I think when we saw people storming the Capitol, we don’t want to throw any kerosene on this fire in the slightest. But I think also the improbability of Texas and California ever joining together probably helps put this in more of a fantasy realm than a reality of like, ‘Here’s the road map.’”

A Calamity Too Far?

Apocalypse and disaster movies traditionally do pretty well at the box office. Political films—especially those that are plugged directly into the moment or recent news—have often not. Civil War straddles the line between those two, but it remains to be seen whether the scenes of destruction and battle shown in the trailers will draw audiences into theaters where they’ll then absorb the real-life implications of the scenario that Alex Garland is proposing.

“I’m really curious to see whether it’s going to do really well initially or it’s going to do okay,” says Scott. “And then whether word of mouth will get more people in or it will have the complete opposite effect of ‘ no, I don’t want to hear any more about this. I don’t want a doomsday movie about this. I can deal with the giant tsunami knocking out LA because that’s unlikely. But we’ve seen an attack on the Capitol already.’ This may feel like… it’s picking the scab and then really causing more damage. So I’m curious which way people will [go in their reaction].”

Author Kim Newman suggests that audiences do not want to go to the cinema to see America collapse without an otherworldly or supernatural menace to blame. “My guess is that more on-the-nose reflections of the way things are will be less welcomed by viewers,” he says. “Though there’s often a warmer response to more fantastical, horror-inflected visions than dry factual studies—I remember that whole raft of ‘War on Terror’ films of the early 2000s which seemed too important and traumatic for audiences to want to watch, even as the Hostel and Saw films obliquely tapped into the mood of the times.”

Ad – content continues below

It’s safe to say that the mood of the times right now, with social media users regularly snarking that both an American civil war and a nascent World War III are already brewing, is particularly pessimistic. Previous apocalyptic films have, in many ways, let us process these horrendous situations from a safe distance, letting us feel the emotional and psychological trauma without actually experiencing it, then get up and walk away when the lights go up. Those days may be over. But Scott has a fleeting hope that Civil War—should it become a cultural flashpoint—might serve another, and perhaps more useful, purpose.

“There’s that whole idea [in the film] of are you going to turn a blind eye or are you going to fight?” she says. “Like, are those the only two options?  No, let’s try to find resolution. Ignore or fight are pretty dark choices there. My hope is that people would come together and say, ‘I don’t like those two choices. Where’s the third choice?’ Do I think we’re all going to hold hands and sing ‘We Are The World’? No, I doubt it. But anything to start expanding the way we talk would be a good, neutral and interesting discussion point to springboard from.”

Civil War is in theaters now.