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‘Civil War’ First Reactions From Premiere: “Scary as Hell Cautionary Tale”

A24 revealed its provocative action drama Civil War at the South by Southwest Film & TV Festival on Thursday night.

Screening to a packed audience at Austin’s Paramount Theater, Civil War was revealed to be a tribute to war journalism that veers away from explaining the politics that led to its central conflict. The movie instead depicts the practicalities and horrors of a civil war in modern-day America. The first-blush audience reactions (below) are raves, with viewers calling the film a riveting and haunting movie, while the first round of critic reviews have the film earning an 83 percent “Fresh” score on Rotten Tomatoes.

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The film from acclaimed writer-director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) imagines a near-future dystopia where the United States has been torn apart under the authoritarian rule of a three-term president (Nick Offerman). The story follows a journalist (Kirsten Dunst) and her colleagues as they make their way across a hostile and divided states of America with the hope of interviewing the president as the forces seeking to overthrown him close in. Much of the road trip adventure feels a bit like Garland’s breakout 28 Days Later — only with amoral militia soldiers touting assault rifles lurking around every turn instead of zombies.

Here are some of the early reactions from those in attendance:

“Alex Garland’s #CivilWar is unlike anything I’ve ever watched. It’s a big, viscous, action-packed war picture from A24, which means it brings with it a richness & depth you don’t get anywhere else. Garland’s best work – flawless cinematography & gripping from start to finish,” wrote Erik Davis.

#CivilWar is phenomenal. Alex Garland’s latest is a wholly consuming war movie. An epic but deeply intimate piece that uses the experience and motivations of a group of military-embedded journalists to highlight the deeply chilling reality of living in a world that never learns. The production value is through the roof. Between Rob Hardy’s highly immersive cinematography and the booming sound design, Civil War puts the viewer as firmly in the shoes of a war photographer as possible,” wrote Perri Nemiroff.

“Alex Garland’s CIVIL WAR is a masterpiece. My heart was constantly racing and my jaw was on the floor by the final act. Get rid of any expectations you have and see it in the loudest theater possible,” wrote Jason Kauzlarich.

“Alex Garland’s CIVIL WAR: I’m speechless. A horrific tale. A journalism tale. An American tale, well-told,” wrote Alyssa Vidales.

“Alex Garland’s “CIVIL WAR” is an absolute fucking MASTERPIECE. A riveting, unflinching, visceral cautionary tale that’s scary as hell. Watching it, one can’t help but feel how close we are to this actually happening, making it a MUST SEE to stop it before it actually does,” wrote Scott Mantz.

“I’m speechless, Alex Garland’s Civil War is not only the best movie of the year but the most important. A haunting story that’s beautifully shot and led by a tremendous cast. There is nothing quite like it and you’re not ready. A true modern masterpiece!” wrote Luis.

“Um… Alex Garland’s Civil War is incredible. A true knockout. The movies I want to compare it to will force an overhype situation, so I’ll just leave it at that. One of the most engrossing movies I’ve seen in years,” wrote Eric Vespe.

Critics are largely positive too, with The Hollywood Reporter‘s Lovia Gyarkye writing, “With the precision and length of its violent battle sequences, it’s clear Civil War operates as a clarion call. Garland wrote the film in 2020 as he watched cogs on America’s self-mythologizing exceptionalist machine turn, propelling the nation into a nightmare. With this latest film, he sounds the alarm, wondering less about how a country walks blindly into its own destruction and more about what happens when it does.”

Civil War has raised eyebrows for its timing, coming amid a contentious election year in which President Joe Biden has claimed “democracy is at stake” given his opponent Donald Trump’s history of attempts to subvert election laws. While the idea of a modern-day civil war might seem far-fetched, a 2022 poll by YouGov and the Economist found that 40 percent of Americans believe a new civil war is “at least somewhat likely in the next 10 years.”

When asked about when he wrote the film, Garland said, “It was four years ago. I wrote it back then and sent it to A24 and they just said, ‘Yup, all good,” which was surprising. This is a brave film to finance, so it was super appreciated.” Garland has long been in business with A24, dating back to his directorial debut, Ex Machina. The action film is reportedly the indie studio’s biggest swing to date.

Civil War doesn’t offer much explanation about how the country gets to its perilous state (audiences do learn that the president disbanded the FBI), which the director said was intentional. Said Garland, “The film is intended to be a conversation. It is not asserting things. You want to leave space for people to bring themselves to the conversation. It’s important that it was a two way street.”

Civil War also stars Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Sonoya Mizuno, and much of the cast was seeing the film for the first time at the Austin premiere. “I need a second,” said Dunst to laughs from the audience. “I had never read a script like this and I had never seen a film like this.”

Civil War will be released in theaters and IMAX on April 12.

UPDATE: Alex Garland breaks silence on Civil War timing, why Texas and California are allies, what the film is trying to say, and blasts political polarization as “incredibly dangerous.”

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