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Alex Garland’s Civil War is A24’s biggest challenge yet

The United States stands as arguably one of the most polarised environments in our contemporary political landscape, so it was only a matter of time before a film was made about it. Interestingly however, writer-director Alex Garland’s upcoming film, Civil War, does not seem to place the conflict it explores within a political context. The film is set in the near future, following a group of journalists documenting the clashes between the dictatorship they live under and independent militias. Garland’s filmography is respectable, and compounded with the authority that the distributor A24 brings with them, this film has genuine potential.

Alex Garland began his career as a novelist, before transitioning to screenplays. He wrote both 28 Days Later and Sunshine for director Danny Boyle. These films share some similarities – 28 Days Later is a low budget post-apocalyptic zombie film, and Sunshine is a space film following one crew’s mission to reignite the sun. Both seem to contain existentialist ideas, questioning the place of humanity in our world, ideas that would re-emerge in his own films. Garland thus managed to prove himself within the sci-fi genre, both films standing out as critical and box office successes.

The film has echoes of the original Blade Runner in its discussion of the increasingly blurred line between human and nonhuman

Eight years on from Sunshine, Garland wrote and directed his first film, Ex Machina, distributed by A24. Ex Machina is, again, a sci-fi film, following a human test subject who is invited to his eccentric CEO’s home to perform a Turing test on an AI robot. The film stars Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac as the human characters and Alicia Vikander as Ava, the humanoid robot. I remember feeling utterly absorbed by Ex Machina, the simple script and story far outweighing any action films of its day. The film has echoes of the original Blade Runner in its discussion of the increasingly blurred line between human and nonhuman. In returning to Ex Machina, however, one finds some slightly uncomfortable racial and gender politics. Oscar Isaac’s CEO has another AI servant who is Japanese, subservient, and mute, as it is insinuated that he keeps her around for sex. There are some genuinely brilliant moments of acting and writing in this film, but in retrospect I struggle to move past these uncomfortable narrative elements.

Annihilation was released in 2018, itself an adaptation of a novel. Here, the sci-fi film centres around ‘The Shimmer’, a zone that has caused genetic mutations in its plant life and animals. Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biology professor and soldier who is sent into the ‘Shimmer’ along with a team of scientists to find out what caused previous exploration teams to go missing. Despite some moments of schlock, I continue to really enjoy Annihilation. The whole film is rife with symbolism and features great use of the song ‘Helplessly Hoping’ by Crosby, Stills & Nash. However, when it tries to engage with the more philosophical and intellectual ideas, particularly in the closing scenes at the lighthouse, the film teeters on being a bit full of itself. This is something I enjoy, however, and I find these moments of pretentiousness to be well blended with the more genre-specific moments. For example, where Garland excels in this film is with the moments of horror, where Lena watches her husband cut open the stomach of one of his fellow soldiers on a camcorder, to reveal his intestines writhing like eels.

Garland’s latest release, Men (2022), is a horror film, though still incorporating aspects of the psychological found in Ex Machina, and perhaps arguably even Sunshine. Men follows Harper, played by Jessie Buckley, who retreats to a countryside getaway after her abusive husband’s suicide. The film plays on the home-invasion subgenre, which seems to be extended to the whole village Harper stays in; the men of the village are all individually creepy and unsettling. These men are all played by Rory Kinnear, the renowned Shakespeare actor, in varying quantities of prosthetics. Garland excels at the quieter moments of this film; the pervasive camera leaves the audience waiting for the next unwelcome sight to creep into the background. However, Menseems to unravel towards the end in a ridiculous sequence of the demon giving birth to itself several times in a Russian Doll manner before Garland invokes Chekhov’s (unfulfilled?) axe. This left me rolling my eyes and totally undoes the subtlety and creepiness of the first 90 minutes. In a similar vein, the film doesn’t seem entirely sure what to do with itself, toeing the line between a genuinely interesting unpicking of gender politics and a horror fable that includes references to the Garden of Eden. It never quite melds the two to a point of cohesion, and the message of the former is somewhat clunky and lacks depth.

However, it is impossible to discuss the body of work of Garland without also acknowledging the production and distribution company that is A24. Increasingly, A24 is becoming the go-to for indie filmmakers and filmgoers alike, with their catalogue of weird and wonderful films. Some highlights include Moonlight, Aftersun, Uncut Gems, and Midsommar. It is also important to mention Everything, Everywhere, All at Once – which won the Oscar for Best Picture. I would like to highlight my dad’s favourite A24 film, A Ghost Story (2017), a gorgeously shot and written film about love persisting after death that explores this theme in relation to the concept of time. A24 leans towards horror and thrillers but are not afraid to dip their toes into the drama genre, as with Aftersun. Their films are always tightly written and original, qualities that are refreshing in a film industry so replete with prequels, sequels, and spinoffs that I don’t even know what the latest Marvel release is.

Equally exciting is the presence of newcomer Spaeny, whose turn as the eponymous Priscilla in Sofia Coppola’s recent biopic is receiving widespread critical acclaim

To return now to Civil War, Garland has managed to line up a star-studded cast for what is set to be A24’s most expensive film yet, with a budget of $50 million. Starring Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and Nick Offerman, with Jesse Plemons in a minor role, one might remark at the variety of talent on hand. Dunst’s credits have only gotten more impressive since her departure from the role of Mary Jane in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman, with recent films such as Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dogand Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia demonstrating her sheer acting ability beyond comic book movies. Equally exciting is the presence of newcomer Spaeny, whose turn as the eponymous Priscilla in Sofia Coppola’s recent biopic is receiving widespread critical acclaim. Fans may know Moura from the Netflix series Narcos, and Henderson from Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, but it is the presence of Offerman as the President of the United States that seems baffling. Known for his role as Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation, strangely enough, Offerman seems convincing enough from the glimpses of him we see in the trailer.

Between A24’s near-perfect track record and brilliant cast list, and in the trusted hands of Garland, Civil War looks set to be fully compelling. Yet again, he looks to be questioning human nature, in the form of the dictatorship state, in a film I am wholly looking forward to.


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