Civil War (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt
  • Review Date: Jul 02, 2024
  • Format: 4K Ultra HD
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Civil War (4K UHD Review)


Alex Garland

Release Date(s)

2024 (July 9, 2024)


DNA Films/IPR.VC/A24 (Lionsgate Home Entertainment)
  • Film/Program Grade: A
  • Video Grade: A+
  • Audio Grade: A+
  • Extras Grade: A

Civil War (4K Ultra HD)





When I saw the first teaser for Alex Garland’s Civil War, I had a viscerally negative reaction to it. The idea of releasing a film about a modern and violent civil war in this polarized political climate—and in the middle of a Presidential election year no less—was… well, let’s just say that it was not something I had any interest in seeing. But as a cinephile, I’ve always appreciated Garland’s work, most recently his Hulu science fiction series Devs, so I resolved to keep an open mind. When critics finally began reviewing Civil War a few months later, their opinions were decidedly mixed. A bit of research soon revealed the reason for this, and the discovery actually piqued my interest a great deal, enough for me to jump at the first available chance to see the film for myself. I’m certainly glad I did too, because I think it might be Alex Garland’s best film to date… and he’s made some pretty good ones thus far.

Civil War opens on the President (Nick Offerman, The Last of Us) giving a televised speech in which we learn that the US has won a great victory against the secessionist Western Forces of Texas and California. Watching from her hotel room amid the New York City chaos is a veteran photojournalist named Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia). While covering a fresh water distribution in Brooklyn the next day, she meets—and saves—Jessie Cullen (Cailee Spaeny, Devs), an aspiring young photographer who hopes to follow in Lee’s footsteps. At their hotel that evening, Lee and her reporter partner Joel (Wagner Moura, Narcos) are making plans to drive to the front lines near Washington DC, when Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson, Dune: Part One), a New York Times journalist and Lee’s mentor, asks to join them. Lee is uneasy with the idea, given Sammy’s advanced age and poor health, and is even more uncomfortable the next morning when she learns that Jessie is coming too. It seems the US Government is losing the war and DC is about to fall. Lee and Joel want to interview the President—now is in his third term—before he’s captured or killed. But in order to get there, they’ll have to drive right through the raging conflict… and horrors yet unknown.

There are a couple of reasons why audiences didn’t embrace Civil War, I think. The first, as I’ve mentioned, is an understandable discomfort with the idea of the film. But the more interesting reason is that, whatever your political opinions might be or your position in our media-fueled culture war, Civil War doesn’t allow you to feel good about it or self-righteous. I’ve seen comments online to the effect that “California and Texas would never team up like this!” or that the film somehow pulls its punches by not making it clear which party the President belongs to (as you might expect, the Left wants to believe he’s right-wing, while the Right wants to believe he’s a leftie). But Garland isn’t interested in validating your preconceptions. What he’s trying to say is that war is not a LARP, to be waged for clicks and likes. And now we’re living in an age in which social media algorithms have driven many of us into online bubbles where our own opinions are unquestioned truth and those outside the bubble are clearly the problem—or worse, the enemy—and too many of us can’t even imagine that those folks might have more in common with us than what divides us. That is a recipe for disaster.

Alex Garland’s Civil War is a disturbingly realistic depiction of an essential truth—proven in every conflict throughout human history—that war is never what you think it’s going to be, and it never goes the way you think it will. This is a film about the uncertainty of life and death in the middle of naked violence, the arbitrary nature of that violence, and the lack of rules or morals or guidelines once things get hot. It’s about how some folks bury their heads in the sand, it’s about the indifference of the universe to human suffering, and the terrible truth that there’s a kind of beauty in destruction, which perhaps is one of the many reasons why we flirt so often with it. Garland’s direction here is subversive from start to finish. All four leads are terrific in their roles—Henderson and Spaeny have particularly good chemistry—and the many supporting cast members are authentic and believable as well. Director of photography Rob Hardy puts on a masterclass of cinematography, delivering one striking and effective image after another. And the electronic score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow is edgy, mixed with a soundtrack of needle drops that includes incongruous and sometimes jarring musical choices (featuring the likes of Suicide, De La Soul, Sturgill Simpson, and Skid Row).

Civil War was captured in the X-OCN ST codec (at 6K and 8K resolution) using DJI Ronin 4D/Zenmuse X9 camera rigs (for about 70% of the film), as well as Sony CineAlta Venice cameras and Sony a7S Mark IIIs (for interior and exterior vehicle shots), each paired with Panavision H Series and specially modified Leitz M0.8 spherical lenses. The film was finished as a native 4K Digital Intermediate at the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, with grading for high dynamic range (in both Dolby Vision and HDR10). For its Ultra HD release, it’s been encoded on a 100 GB disc, so the image has plenty of room to breathe (with data rates in the 75 to 85 Mbps range). The result is an absolutely gorgeous 4K image—on the level of Top Gun: Maverick, Dune: Part Two, and Oppenheimer. Detail abounds in every frame, all of it smooth and beautifully refined—a clear argument in support of the notion that better pixels in equals better pixels out. The breadth of contrast is impressive, with bold highlights and deep shadows. A standout moment appears in Chapter 3, as Lee and Joel argue over whether Jessie should join them. They’re standing in daylight behind the car, while Sammy and Jessie sit shadowed inside it—the low-light capture and HDR are so good that you can see the emotions playing out on their faces as they listen in. The grading is warm but naturalistic, rendering lush and vibrant colors. Hardy photographs his subjects with a narrow field of focus, so a character’s eyes might be crisp while the camera in their hand, or the hair on their head, is softer. And he stages his shots with objects and movement in the foreground, middle ground, and background all at once, with the focus constantly shifting. The result is an extraordinary sense of depth that puts you right in the moment. Another standout scene happens later in the film, as the characters are driving through a forest fire at night—Sammy gazes through the window as a shower of luminous sparks and embers swirls around them. Straight up, this is a visual tour de force and a demo-worthy 4K image in every respect.

It sounds fantastic too in English Dolby Atmos, but again it’s an unsettling mix. It opens with white-noise audio test tones, clearly meant to grab your attention, that work their way around the listening space. Dialogue is clean and full sounding as the President delivers his speech, but then the tonal quality shifts once we’re with Lee watching the broadcast in her hotel room, a transition that’s punctuated by the bassy rumble of an explosion seen in a distant neighborhood through the window. This transitions into the nerve-jangling electronic tones of Silver Apple’s Lovefingers, as the opening title appears and the camera pans over a New York City skyline with fires burning. In the film’s first major set piece—a chaotic protest as city officials attempt to distribute clean drinking water to angry residents—sound cues filter in from all around. People are shouting, a police siren pans behind you, a helicopter flies overhead. As Lee pushes into the crowd to take photos, suddenly you’re right in the middle of the scuffle with her. The overhead channels are constantly active. In quiet scenes, the atmospherics are impressive, creating unique and authentic sonic spaces with bird calls, flowing water, rustling trees, insect noises. When the action heats up and bullets fly, directionality is aggressive and natural, and the low end reinforcement is very strong. Projectiles whiz around the listening space and strike behind you, beside you. Gunshots ring and linger in the air, explosions have weighty heft. And in the final act, during the final invasion of Washington DC, you’re confronted by a thunderous and immersive sonic assault. Panning is smooth and fluid, staging is complex and lively. This is a great, great Atmos mix, and one of the most unique that I’ve heard in a long time. English Descriptive audio is also included, along with Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital. Subtitles are available in English SDH and Spanish.

Lionsgate’s Ultra HD release is a 2-disc set that includes the film in 4K on UHD and 1080p HD on Blu-ray. You can buy it in regular Amaray packaging and also as an Amazon-exclusive Amaray with unique cover art. Each disc includes the following special features:

  • Torn Asunder: Waging Alex Garland’s Civil War (HD – 6 parts – 56:58 in all)
    • “The Only Story Left” 857 Miles to D.C. (HD – 13:16)
    • “Sending a Warning Home” 508 Miles to D.C. (HD – 6:35)
    • “It’s the Twilight Zone” 289 Miles to D.C. (HD – 6:09)
    • “What Kind of an American Are You?” 176 Miles to D.C. (HD – 15:09)
    • “I’ve Never Felt More Alive” 116 Miles to D.C. (HD – 5:18)
    • “Kill. No Capture.” 0 Miles to D.C. (HD – 10:29)
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:24)
  • Also From A24 (HD – 8:48)

Torn Asunder is a genuine surprise. It’s produced by our old friend Charles de Lauzirika, whose fine documentary work includes Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner, Superior Firepower: The Making of Aliens, Lensing One Hour Photo, Between Two Worlds (from the Twin Peaks Blu-ray), and so many others. Presented in six parts, it’s not so much comprehensive as it is revelatory. Each part examines a different sequence from the film, presented chronologically. In the first piece, you see the staging of the water distribution scene with Atlanta standing in for Brooklyn, and get a look at the stunt work. In the second, you’re embedded with the film crew during the shooting of the first real combat skirmish the team sets out to document, and Garland and the cast talk about good journalism and how it’s gone wrong. In the third, you see the filming of the refugee camp scene, and the strange little town in West Virginia that appears strangely untouched by the conflict. We learn more about the characters and their costumes. At every step of the way, the director and all of the key participants chime in, including the entire main cast and members of the crew. By the time you’re done, you’ll have gained interesting insights on the production, and—more importantly—you’ll feel like you’ve taken a journey that matches the one in the film. It’s refreshing and enjoyable, a documentary that has a unique perspective but not an agenda, so it never feels like generic EPK filler. It’s one of the best behind-the-scenes features I’ve seen in a long time. Also included among the extras is the film’s trailer, as well as promo trailers for MaXXXine, The Iron Claw, and Garland’s Ex Machina and Men. A Digital Copy code is also available on a paper insert.

(Note that the Amazon-exclusive version also includes Director and Cast Q&A, which I haven’t seen. But my concern would be that it’s also on the 4K disc and thus might impact the image quality a bit.)

Whether you consider this an “important” work or you simply approach it as a piece of cinema, Alex Garland’s Civil War is well worth your time. It’s an uncomfortable film to watch to be sure, which is as it should be. But it’s also stunning to behold and, for my money at least, pretty close to a masterpiece. This 4K Ultra HD release from A24 and Lionsgate offers a reference-quality A/V experience and a genuinely great documentary too. As such, it’s definitely not to be missed.

- Bill Hunt

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