Civil War Is About Whatever You Want it to Be

Throughout his career, Alex Garland has prioritized vibes over plot, even while tackling some of the most controversial topics of our era.

Civil War movie Jesse Plemons

Alex Garland is a machine who takes in sociopolitical debate and puts out cinema. And I mean that in a good way. The director behind Civil War, Men, Annihilation, Ex Machina, and Devs (along with even more screenwriting credits, including 28 Days Later) has a penchant for taking hot-button issues and turning them into unforgettable genre movies that mostly coast on vibes. Expecting anything more from Garland is a mistake.

Civil War, his latest release, may be the best example of this pattern. The explosive new film from indie studio A24 takes the very real concerns of modern Americans living in an increasingly divided nation and twists them into something else. Civil War barely bothers to explain why its version of the United States of America is at war with itself, aside from a few casual references to something called the “antifa massacre” and the reveal that the current president (played by Nick Offerman but never given any sort of political affiliation) has violently turned against his own citizens. Instead, it’s focused on the emotional journey of a group of jaded journalists (and one who’s still young enough to be naive) on a road-trip journey across America, filled with terror and beauty in equal measure.

In a way, Civil War is a Rorschach test, giving the audience free rein to project any meaning they want onto it. Is it an anti-Trump warning? An admonishment of woke culture run amok? A subversion of the classic war movie that shifts the action from some unnamed exotic destination back to our own shores? The answer doesn’t really matter when the experience of watching Civil War on its own terms is so good. Garland uses politics to get you in the door, but what he serves up is about as far from a political message as you can get, instead offering up stunning imagery and pulse-pounding action against the vague backdrop of a modern American civil war.

Rory Kinnear in Men.


Again, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Consider his previous movie, Men, a folk horror allegory about a woman who escapes from her city life to the countryside, only to be pursued by the a town full of men who all share the same face. On the surface, Men feels like a clear response to the #MeToo movement. But actually watch the film and it has little to say about gender politics and inequality. (Garland later admitted that its trippy finale was directly influenced by the popular anime Attack on Titan.)

Looking even further back into Garland’s career reveals mostly more of the same. Devs and Ex Machina both focus their attention on the dangers of Big Tech and the unchecked power of the people who run companies like Google and Facebook, while also exploring the power of nascent technologies like AI and quantum computing. And while both projects feel like they have something to say on the topic (even if it’s mostly just “tech bad”) Garland generally seems more interested in the emotions of his characters and trippy set design than the meaning behind the story.

Ex Machina’s most memorable scene barely has anything to do with its plot about the dangers of technology.


The purest Alex Garland joint is probably Annihilation, which doesn’t even pretend to be about anything topical. The sci-fi thriller about a mysterious alien “shimmer” that mutates nature to its whim is pretty much the definition of a no plot, just vibes movie, complete with a spectacular finale that’s basically a modern dance performance. Maybe some people would be less annoyed by Civil War if it ended with a Nick Offerman and Kirsten Dunst dance scene a la Ex Machina.

Speaking to The Atlantic, Garland shot back at his critics with a telling anecdote:

“My daughter, who’s 17, [is] studying film, and the teacher said in one of her classes, ‘It’s unethical for filmmakers to present something without making it clear on which position they stand with regards to [an] issue.’ ... To me, to make that statement is unethical.”

Natalie Portman in Annihilation’s trippy ending.

Paramount Pictures

If you asked Garland whether his movies take a position or not, he might say yes. But when you think back to his greatest work, it’s not the clear-eyed political commentary or grandstanding exposition that stands out. Instead, it’s the weird moments in between the plot that we remember best. Without a clear thesis to cling to, audiences can make whatever they want of Garland’s work, creating a blank slate to project your own interpretation. (After Annihilation came out, some argued the film was a metaphor for depression, and that’s a totally valid reading of the movie.)

In an era when some fans expect movies to be plot delivery machines and debates over canon can feel all-consuming, it’s refreshing to see a director who’s determined to defy our worst instincts as an audience time and time again.

Now, 10 years after his directorial debut with Ex Machina, Alex Garland takes on his most divisive and controversial topic yet in Civil War, drawing in a larger audience for a film it’s likely not prepared for. But if this movie proves anything, it’s that vibes will always come first.

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