What if.

It’s a question that has intrigued storytellers and audiences alike for generations.  The desire to take something known and twist it ever so slightly, to the point where elements and pieces are not immediately recognizable – or worse, things are chillingly recognizable and seemingly appropriate in their darker state.

The thought of “yes, I could see something like this happening” is perhaps one of the scariest story premises out there – especially when what we’re being presented with is dark and dangerous.

Such is the case with ‘Civil War,’ the new film from director Alex Garland and production studio A24.

Taking place in the indeterminately-near future, the political and socio-economical divide in the United States of America has grown to the point where the country has fractured, with several states deciding to try their own hand at self-governance.  A few maps shown early in the film indicate that close to 20 states may be trying to secede in various ways.  Factions such as the “Florida Alliance” and the “New People’s Army” have arisen, but the two largest proponents have joined forces to create the “Western Forces,” and in a large-yet-subtle twist, it’s California and Texas, of all the strange bedfellows, who are working together in an attempt to overthrow the United States government.

Long-time war photographer Lee Smith (Kiersten Dunst) decides to travel from New York City to Washington, D.C., alongside her long-time journalist friend Joel (Wagner Moura), to attempt to get an interview and photographs with the President of the United States (Nick Offerman) before the Western Forces push to D.C. and attempt to capture him.  It’s revealed through bits of newsreels and snippets of Presidential addresses that the President is in his third term in office, giving the vibe of a dictatorial government without ever saying it loud.

Tagging along on the trip are aspiring young photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) and Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a veteran New York Times journalist who wants to see the front-line action despite his older stature and physical limitations.  Together, the quartet set off on the 500-plus mile journey, where they encounter a wide variety of citizens and situations that are best left undescribed here, as they are far better seen to be believed.  the film culminates in the Western Forces’ storming of Washington D.C. and the White House, which gives the film a tense and astounding climax that is, again, better left for viewers to see in as unfiltered a way as possible.

I struggle with the genre classification of this film; is it horror?  There are certainly many horrific elements present, but many of them are rooted in the realities of our present-day society.  Is it science-fiction?  It definitely has the “alternate history” kind of vibe, except that it hasn’t happened yet.  Is it dystopian?  Again, the parallels to our modern-day society put us conceivably only a few major steps away from this story becoming some semblance of reality – which I suppose is what makes a dystopian story “dystopian,” although we’d certainly like to feel like the path to get to this grim reality is a few more steps away than ‘Civil War’ seems.  Things in this film hit uncomfortably close to home – and therein lies the real power and draw of this tale.

During our advance screening of the film (courtesy of production company A24 – who have put out so many outstanding films these last few years that I’ll watch anything they throw my way – and the amazing Heartland Film group), I took a few moments to look around at my fellow press attendees and other theater-goers, and many of them were literally on the edge of their seats, leaning forward with tense faces and seriously invested in the film’s narrative.  There are loud parts of the film, both from gunfire and some hard-rockin’ “classic American rock” music, and there are quieter, gripping moments as well; during many of the latter, audible gasps could be heard from the audience as we all collectively witnessed things that we thought would never happen and, quite frankly, hope never will happen.

When it was all said and done, ‘Civil War’ is a magnificent film that feels equal parts outlandish and cautionary.  Credit director Garland for crafting a tale of this nature – he’s been making amazing films for a long time now, including ‘Dredd,’ ‘Annihilation,’ ‘Ex Machina,’ ’28 Days Later,’ and so many more.  Particular standouts in the cast include Dunst as the primary character and driver of the movie’s story, McKinley Henderson for commanding his scenes with an amazingly quiet gravitas, and Offerman who doesn’t get a ton of screen time but definitely makes the most out of his screen presence, including a subtly alarming opening scene where we get a bit of behind-the-scenes look at the Commander–in-Chief.

It’s a movie that will likely leave you with questions about what you’ve seen, long after you leave the theater.  Questions like how could we let things get to this point, or could this really happen in our lifetime?  And of course, the biggest question of all: what if?

‘Civil War’ opens in theaters in the US on April 12, 2024.