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Civil War First Reviews: Haunting, Thought-Provoking, and Probably Not What You Think It Is

Critics at SXSW say Alex Garland's latest film is a gorgeously shot cautionary tale full of big ideas and a fantastic performance by Kirsten Dunst, but it may surprise some viewers.

by | March 15, 2024 | Comments

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Alex Garland‘s movies always get people talking, and his latest has critics both raving and reproaching. Following the premiere of Civil War at the SXSW Film Festival this week, initial reviews are praising the beauty and intensity of the dystopian drama while also noting its potential for controversy and disappointment due to the effectiveness of its messaging. Kirsten Dunst stars in the thriller as a photojournalist covering the near-future disunion of the United States, and her performance is receiving attention in reviews both positive and negative, adding to the fact that Civil War might be a film you just have to see for yourself.

Here’s what critics are saying about Civil War:


How does this compare to Alex Garland’s other films?

It’s the most upsetting dystopian vision yet from the sci-fi brain that killed off all of London for the zombie uprising depicted in 28 Days Later.
Peter Debruge, Variety

This may be his most restrained and introspective work since his razor-edged and gossamer-delicate script for 2010’s Never Let Me Go, but that’s not sitting at odds with the material.
Richard Whittaker, Austin Chronicle

This film might be the largest that Garland has worked on, but he hasn’t lost his talent for keeping his audience off-balance.
David Sims, The Atlantic

It’s a return to form for its director after the misstep of Men.
Katie Rife, IndieWire

It isn’t Garland’s best film by any means, but it is his most unexpectedly interesting.
Chase Hutchinson, The Wrap

He’s never less than 100-percent thought-provoking. This time out, however, it’s hard not to occasionally feel that the second word of that descriptive is being favored at the expense of the first.
David Fear, Rolling Stone

As was true in Men, Garland’s epiphany feels shallow, as if delivered from an outsider looking in.
Kristy Puchko, Mashable

On its surface, Civil War is intellectually barren compared to Garland’s previous work.
Robert Daniels, Screen International


Kirsten Dunst in Civil War (2024)

(Photo by ©A24)

Is it a difficult movie to watch?

It can’t be easily consumed as entertainment.
Peter Debruge, Variety

It would be wholly admirable if it weren’t so hard to take in… Civil War is a tough watch.
Robert Daniels, Screen International

Civil War is an overwhelming experience.
Kate Sánchez, But Why Tho? A Geek Community

Unsettling… haunting.
Jacob Hall, Slashfilm

There’s nothing fun about this film. It has some darkly surreal moments, sure. Maybe even a barking, joyless laugh or two. But it’s not fun.
Katie Rife, IndieWire

Should you come into Civil War looking for left-wing jingoism and/or alt-right paranoia, we wish you good luck and godspeed. Ditto cold comfort, catharsis, and/or cheap thrills.
David Fear, Rolling Stone

There is a good chance that those looking for straight action will feel disconnected from it, but that increasingly proves to be the point. As Garland captures the intense violence and death with his own camera, there is a coldness to it that almost feels dehumanizing.
Chase Hutchinson, The Wrap

For as inured as we’ve become to images of death and displacement in other first-world countries, Civil War enflames our discomfort by bringing the conflict to our own backyard.
Matthew Monagle, The Playlist


Wagner Moura in Civil War (2024)

(Photo by ©A24)

So it won’t be for everyone?

A provocative shock to the system, Civil War is designed to be divisive. Ironically, it’s also meant to bring folks together.
Peter Debruge, Variety

The why of the war is not the point, and as such Garland keeps politics out of it. (Perhaps that also helps avoid polarizing could-be movie-goers?)
Kristy Puchko, Mashable

The controversial subject matter will no doubt drive ticket sales… Your mileage will vary on how much violence you can consume; you could throw plenty of literal trigger warnings at Civil War.
Robert Daniels, Screen International

Those looking to Civil War for neat ideologies will leave disappointed.
Matthew Monagle, The Playlist

The political commentary is less of a conversation and more of a Rorschach test.
Kate Sánchez, But Why Tho? A Geek Community


But should everyone see it anyway?

Civil War is the movie event of the year — and the post-movie group discussion of your lifetime.
Matthew Monagle, The Playlist

Civil War seems like the kind of movie people will mostly talk about for all the wrong reasons, and without seeing it first. It isn’t what those people will think it is. It’s something better, more timely, and more thrilling.
Tasha Robinson, Polygon

Showing America the risks of in-fighting and the potential costs of division… Civil War is a cautionary tale.
Peter Debruge, Variety

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.
Lovia Gyarkye, Hollywood Reporter

We’re bearing witness to an exacting recreation of historical events that haven’t actually happened. And we, the audience from this reality, are asked to take it all as a warning. This is the movie that gets made if we don’t fix our s–t.
Jacob Hall, Slashfilm

Despite its ambitious premise and high-caliber cast, the movie stands as a muddled reflection, ultimately rendering its cautionary tale less impactful than intended.
Valerie Complex, Deadline Hollywood Daily


Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny in Civil War (2024)

(Photo by ©A24)

How will it make us feel in the end?

As statements go, his powerful vision leaves us shaken.
Peter Debruge, Variety

It will indeed chill you to the bone.
David Fear, Rolling Stone

This is a film intent on shaking you into shock and awe… until you are as desensitized as these reporters.
Robert Daniels, Screen International

I left the theater quite exhilarated.
David Sims, The Atlantic

For better and a whole lot worse, we are going to talk about this movie for the rest of the year — and into the 2025 award season for good measure.
Matthew Monagle, The Playlist


How is Kirsten Dunst?

Audiences have never seen Dunst like this.
Peter Debruge, Variety

While she has always done great work this is up there as one of her most focused performances.
Chase Hutchinson, The Wrap

Dunst is sensational in the role, which could have felt stiff in the hands of a lesser actor.
Kristy Puchko, Mashable

A transcendent performance.
Robert Daniels, Screen International

Dunst doesn’t round Lee out but hollows her out.
Richard Whittaker, Austin Chronicle

Dunst makes Lee an incredibly compelling figure whose faith and ability to stomach the demands of the job unravel slowly over the course of the film.
Lovia Gyarkye, Hollywood Reporter


Kirsten Dunst in Civil War (2024)

(Photo by ©A24)

How does the movie look?

It’s a particularly gorgeous drama… The movie in general seems designed to impress viewers on a visual level.
Tasha Robinson, Polygon

For Garland’s part, he and DoP Rob Hardy have crafted a discomfitingly gorgeous film.
Robert Daniels, Screen International

If the film asks much of its audience in terms of narrative, it at least has the good grace to look damn good while doing so.
Matthew Monagle, The Playlist

Civil War is A24’s most expensive production, and it shows. Garland’s rendering of the war-torn suburban US is a fascinating mix of beautiful and horrifying.
Adrian Horton, Guardian

Garland’s camera recognizes the unusual beauty and surreality that can accompany images of tremendous stress and terror.
Jacob Hall, Slashfilm

Most of the movie takes place in broad daylight, not at all the aesthetic audiences expect from a modern-day war movie.
Peter Debruge, Variety

Scenes of America as an active war zone are some of Civil War’s most potent images. In a subversive move, Garland, partnering again with DP Rob Hardy, documents these conditions with the distant vérité style found in American films about international regional conflicts.
Lovia Gyarkye, Hollywood Reporter

Garland’s distinctive technical style shines through.
Valerie Complex, Deadline Hollywood Daily


Image from Civil War (2024)

(Photo by ©A24)

Any other parting criticisms?

Garland has always been a director of big ideas, and Civil War is no exception when it comes to that ambitiousness. But he’s also reaching for an intimacy here that his screenplay doesn’t quite deliver on.
Lovia Gyarkye, Hollywood Reporter

The film’s execution, hampered by thin characterization, a lackluster narrative, and an overreliance on spectacle over substance, left me disengaged.
Valerie Complex, Deadline Hollywood Daily

The film overall lacks focus.
Kristy Puchko, Mashable

Civil War gives little to hold on to on the level of character or world-building, which leaves us with effective but limited visual provocation.
Adrian Horton, Guardian

The core of Civil War feels hollow.
Robert Daniels, Screen International


81% Civil War (2024) opens in theaters on April 12, 2024.



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