No less an authority on filmmaking than the French New Wave master Francois Truffaut once declared that there’s no such thing as an anti-war movie. His argument was that cinema, by its very nature, inherently glamorizes war. The rush of combat, the adventure, the drama and high stakes of battle—all of these things have been depicted so many times, in so many ways, with the intention of thrilling audiences. Movies connect viewers to the figures fighting the war and emotionally engage the audience in their fears, their hopes, and their camaraderie with the power of heroic camera angles, resonant music, and narrative tension. Simply by doing those things, Truffaut was among many to argue, film can make war seem appealing. It could be us up there, bravely taking the hill or picking off snipers so our buddies can raise the flag. 

Alex Garland’s Civil War, which premiered at South by Southwest on Thursday night, makes a strong counterargument. The film, which stars Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, and Cailee Spaeny (all of whom were in attendance in Austin), is set in a not-too-distant future in which the United States has fallen into collapse. While the movie isn’t particularly invested in world-building, there are enough details to get a sense of the events leading up to it: a president (Nick Offerman) who held power for a third term, a rebellion in Florida, “the Antifa massacre” a dozen or so years earlier, and an eventual union between Texas and California to take Washington, D.C. Garland, in a postscreening Q&A, noted that we can all imagine, in the current climate, how such a thing might happen without having the specifics spelled out. Anything significant enough to bring Texas and California together in arms helps establish the scale of the war, which, as the film opens, is nearing its conclusion. Dunst and company play a group of war correspondents attempting to get to D.C. for an interview with the president before his inevitable capture. As is often the case in insurgency situations, the rebels, eager to be seen by the larger populace as heroes, invite the press, while what remains of the government takes a rather dimmer view of the media. 

We’ve seen society fall on our screens before. The specifics rarely matter. Sometimes it’s plague (The Last of Us), sometimes it’s evaporating resources (Mad Max), sometimes it’s something a bit less rooted in science (zombies!). The point of these stories is to compel viewers to imagine themselves in these situations, with the highest possible stakes and the comforts of modern life a distant memory. Who would you be if civilization fell? 

It’s a tantalizing question, and one that, like war filmmaking, can glorify the idea of the apocalypse. Would you discover untapped heroic reserves that society has kept trapped within? Would you fight, kill, die for the people you love? These stories have captured our imaginations—all of the ones listed above were massive hits—because, ultimately, it’s fun to imagine ourselves in The Walking Dead

It’s not fun to imagine yourself in Civil War. This is a great achievement. It’s also the only responsible way to tell a story about a war that hasn’t occurred but feels frighteningly plausible in our current political climate. Civil War doesn’t invite us to imagine who we might become should society collapse—it wants to show us that whoever that would be, we’d have it a lot worse than we do right now. 

The film follows its journalist characters on a roundabout trip from New York to Washington, D.C. The interstate is impassable, so they’re routed through Pennsylvania, all the way to Pittsburgh, and on into West Virginia as a point of entry into the capital. Along the way, they encounter many who fall somewhere between soldier and civilian. It’s a hazy line in a civil war, and the film asks viewers to sit with that. There’s little glory in the actions of the men who carry guns in the film; few of them can even identify a cause they’re fighting for. They’re fighting to protect a gas station, or to get rid of the kind of American they don’t like. They’re fighting, and killing, in order to cross the street. 

Our viewpoint characters, being journalists, aren’t doing any of those things. They’re unarmed, strictly observers in the various conflicts. That perspective keeps the war imagery from ever feeling seductive—we’re being asked not to imagine what it might feel like to strap on an AR-15 to fight an enemy, but what it would be like to witness that violence, over and over again. There’s nothing to cheer for. There are just bodies and blood. 

If this makes Civil War seem grim, well, it is, and that’s very much the point. There’s a version of this movie that might have been made in which Dunst and her colleagues stumble upon a piece of information that’s of critical importance, and their journey is about surviving close encounters to take whatever it is they’ve found to the right people, where they run into, say, Gerard Butler and he helps them fight their way through whoever-it-is so they can save the day. It would have been dishonest, but it’s the kind of film we’re used to. War might be hell, those stories suggest, but it’s at least exciting, if you live through it—and in a movie, the good guys tend to live through it. 

But Garland’s film doesn’t give us the chance to imagine ourselves as heroes in the conflict it depicts. Early in the film, Dunst’s character, a veteran war correspondent, explains that she thought every photo she took while in the field around the world was a warning for back home about the reality of war. The movie, ultimately, serves the same purpose. Who would you be in a civil war? You’d be dead, most likely, like the 620,000 or more who died in the last one. Or maybe you’d survive, having been terrified and traumatized, living as a broken version of yourself in a community with the family members of the people you killed. Or you’d be a noncombatant, impoverished and immiserated, sleeping in a tent in a refugee camp. Or, if you were exceptionally lucky, maybe you’d be at home, on whatever rural farm or ranch you had, your money worthless and resources scarce. Civil War doesn’t pretend that there are other options, or that heroics are meaningful. The whole point of the movie is that anything we can do to avoid the situation is better than being in it. Maybe there’s such thing as an anti-war film after all.