"Civil War" is an isolating, information-starved psychological horror

Unlike other war movies, writer/director Alex Garland's Civil War (trailer) is told from the point of view of those behind the cameras. War photographers in search of the elusive moneyshot, Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst's veteran photojournalist) and Jessie Collins (Cailee Spaeny's ambitious newbie) take their quest all the way to the top. The film follows them from New York City to Washington DC–from war-torn city streets, through the free-for-all frontier law of rural areas, all the way to the White House. As Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson's veteran journalist) says on the way, "It's not a story if it never gets filed."

The scariest part of the film isn't the gunfire, explosions, death, or destruction. By far the film's scariest feature is its ontological instability, the watching of one's world crumble with nothing in the way of recourse. The lack of cues from limited access to media heightens the sense of helplessness. The lack of partisan politics is part of the film's power. There is precious little information about what will come next, which adds to the fear and anxiety.

There is a paradox here, a struggle between exposure and isolation: exposure to danger and isolation from information.

The camera work of the better found-footage films, like The Blair Witch Project, Chronicle, and Cloverfield, which the latter's director Matt Reeves likened to "looking through a soda straw," is eerie and effective in a similar fashion. There's such a sense of exposure. The first-person point of view makes the viewer feel "in" the movie, as opposed to passively watching it. Much like the security camera footage of Columbine, and the camera-as-character of Cloverfield, Garland gives us a crippled information flow while subjecting us to total exposure. 

Filmmakers are typically trying to get movie cameras "out of the way" of the movie. Filmmakers typically aim for the camera to be transparent, much as transparency has been advocated in computer interface design. Authors Jay Bolter and Diane Gromala have argued that the interface needs to be reflective as well as transparent, as in windows and mirrors and their book of the same name. The interface needs to get out of the way sometimes (transparency) and provide cues for interaction at other times (reflection). Moving images have similar needs to fulfill.

In Civil War, the cameras are so decidedly in the way as to become focal points. Snapshots pause on the screen as they are taken. Their wobbles, glitches, blurs, and unrelenting singularity of viewpoint define and redefine our experience in the film's undulating chaos. In this way, Garland deftly mixes form and content, mention and use. The photographic process is integral to the picture.

Even if it's far from grainy security camera footage, the camera's limits are what define this viewing experience. Even in defying our expectations, it is a surprisingly effective film. Even with its focus on photography, in Civil War the best shot is all Garland's.

Previously: WATCH: `Ex Machina` examines love and exploitation in the age of AI