“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” is easily the most famous film-script shorthand, if not legerdemain, for what we mean when we say that fiction has outrun or beaten reality at its own game. Film fans everywhere know it as the most famous line from the 1962 John Ford western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but it could easily apply to the long-running Hollywood tradition that tries to portray the future before it arrives at our doorstep. “Could” is the operative word here. So is “try.” This is because, nine times out of ten, the entertainment industry misses the mark by miles.
Do not take my word for it. Just make some popcorn, and examine the film record for yourself. While dystopian film visions of the future world were no doubt fun when they were released, there is simply no denying they are more than a little spoiled by predictions that never came to pass.
The 1961 British film The Day the Earth Caught Fire portrayed the dire panic and desperate drama that ensued after U.S. and Soviet nuclear test blasts rocked Earth off its nutation (or rotational axis, if you will) to push it closer to the Sun. Drought ensues, with the cities evacuated, and everyone strips down to their underwear to party until the End of the World. Deep in the middle of the Reagan years, the 1984 film Red Dawn depicts a United States brutally invaded by Soviet allies that include a Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador that have all fallen to communism via Cuba because U.S. leaders abandoned the domino theory. The film’s melodramatic crescendo is a scene of actor Henry Dean Stanton, held in a communist re-education camp, yelling “Avenge me!” to a young Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen through what looks to be a school yard fence. Bizarrely, the Red Dawn franchise was resurrected in 2012, only this time with North Korea leading the invasion of our homeland, and a full twenty-three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even climate change gets in on the action, but in reverse of what we now fear after the hottest year on record. The 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow waterboarded audiences with state-of-the-art computer animation and special effects of floods and other natural catastrophes to end with the sight of Manhattan encased in ice and snow.
To this endless parade of near-comical dystopian misses now comes Civil War, written and directed by the British writer Alex Garland and scheduled for release late this April. Unlike the directors of the aforementioned films, who are basically unremarkable enough to go unnamed, Garland is not so easily dismissed. His film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go (2010) was respectably creepy, and also a respectable tear-jerker. Garland’s formidable way with the zombie genre—28 Days Later (2002) and 28 Weeks Later (2007)—proved beyond doubt that he knew how to ratchet tension whole degrees past most viewers’ breaking point. This begs the question: is this a film we can authentically fear, or one that will be summarily dismissed?
The film trailer alone has generated substantial buzz sufficient to have its distribution company, A24, giggling with delight. In outline, it casts Kirsten Dunst as an intrepid photojournalist in tow with other rag-tag, everyday Americans trekking across competing enemy territories and attempting to stay alive despite the bedlam and carnage all around them. In preview clips and pundit-influencer takes across YouTube, the main headscratcher is the film’s scenario of possible alliances in the conflict. The so-called “Loyalist States” aligned with Washington, D.C., stretch from Maine to New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada but also include North and South Carolina. The “Florida Alliance” of mostly Deep South states includes Oklahoma, which certainly makes political sense. But then we have to ask why this alliance has not simply joined forces with a “Second Republic of Texas” that, incredibly, is aligned with the “Republic of California.” Pushing the limits of incredulity further, the liberal Democratic strongholds of Washington state, Oregon, and Minnesota are joined at the militant hip with Idaho, Montana and Wyoming to form “Western Forces.” (Note: Alaska and Hawaii remain ostensibly loyal to D.C. If that matters.)
The film’s strategic map already has commentators in conniptions. If Texas and California are not more disparate than cheese and chalk, what brand of politics even motivates this movie, let alone motivations for our second civil war? Or could it be that the absurdity of these two antithetical states in military alliance is supposed to tell us something about the absurdity of any war?
What is not so laughable is the depicted sight of fellow Americans leaping at each other’s throats. There is no question that our nation’s partisanship has seen alarming rises of chronic mistrust, suspicion, and dangerous eruptions of (so far) low-level violence. The bigger question is what hypothetical depictions of these breaking points blown into open carnage serve. For Garland and the marketing staff at A24, a film such as this is, at base level, just another payday. What about us, let alone the poll workers and other public officials who have already been on the receiving end of vicious threats from either side of the political aisle?
War films as a genre—at least the best of them—serve their lessons and exhortations in an icy cold chill of brutal scenes, or dark nights of struggle, pain, and despair speaking to the souls of various protagonists. Soviet director Elem Klimov’s 1985 film about the Nazi invasion of Belarus, Come and See, paints war’s brutality as a portrait of deliberate, ruthless creation to make it all the more unbelievable as we watch. Some, as in Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 film Das Boot, even manage to portray the nerve-crushing stakes of war amidst the unlikely, yet wholly sympathetic, protagonists of a U-boat submarine sinking war-ship cargoes for Nazi Germany. It reminds us that war has no true winners, only mutual sufferers.
If films did not entertain we would not bother watching them. The paradox of the war film is that we do not watch them for entertainment alone. We watch them as warnings, or signposts accumulating errors that mount until, finally, the killing starts and we must afterward struggle to stop. We watch war films as grand, epic errors. The future will of course be full of errors that will be recognizable only by hindsight. Films attempting to assay the future make these errors all the time. Unlike reading history books, we can laugh at these films in hindsight. Maybe Civil War is the film that will shock us into a renewed sense of seriousness, or help inoculate us against our current, collective stupidity. Either would be better than “sleepwalking”—the term now well-worn because it describes our current practice so accurately—straight toward disaster.