After having seen plenty of sci-fi movies that dealt with drones only metaphorically, it’s nice to finally see a movie that hits the subject head on. Understanding the ethical dilemmas surrounding the remote-controlled sky killers is easier, it turns out, when we all actually know what we’re talking about and what’s at stake. Indeed, director Gavin Hood’s previous film was an allegory for drone warfare, even though Ender’s Game was a book written before battlefield drones became a thing—still, the movie definitely understood how close the fiction had come to reality.
It’s also fitting (and maybe ironic) that immediately in the wake of Deadpool, which laughs at death, we get a movie about the weight of life from the guy who arguably messed up Deadpool the first time, in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Looking at the entirety of Hood’s body of work, which also includes Tsotsi, it’s clear he never had the mindset to do Wade Wilson as written. A former military man himself, he makes movies that deal with characters who want to step away from being killers, despite being good at it.
The premise of his latest, Eye in the Sky, is a very simple “What would you do?” scenario. In Kenya, several of the world’s most dangerous terrorists, including a radicalized British couple and a radicalized American expat, have been tracked to a house, inside of which are explosives and suicide vests clearly intended for an imminent attack on civilians. The mission, which involves the cooperation of the Kenyan, British, and U.S. Militaries, is to observe and capture, but the discovery of the weapons might turn it into a lethal operation. Now, with civilians in the area—particularly a small child selling bread to feed her family—there’s a real question as to how to proceed. Do you risk the deaths of innocents to prevent far more from dying? That’s the choice the Clinton administration faced over Osama bin Laden, and it’s much easier to judge in hindsight.
Using movie logic, of course you take them out, especially since the deck has been stacked with Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren arguing in favor of that choice. Amusingly, every American government official presented onscreen cannot understand why this is all even a question; it plays like a subtle indictment of the way American movies simplify the motives for violence. But there’s a chain of command in place, and a lot of opinions. The drone pilots in Nevada (including Aaron Paul), Mirren’s Colonel in England, the operatives on the ground in Kenya (Captain Philips’ Barkhad Abdi is the local spy), and the Lieutenant General (Rickman), and the Cabinet ministers in London—not to mention a number of government officials spread throughout the world—all contribute their two cents. Hood himself even plays a U.S. commanding officer, as if to show he’s not above the debate.
Eye in the Sky is easily mockable at first, mainly for its sparse sets that may or may not be realistic but definitely look like warehouses minimally decorated with a few key props. Yet it will most likely grow on you; just try not to feel your feet tense up as the clock ticks down and the final call must be made. Mirren and Rickman, presumably used to performing on barely dressed stages, set much of the tone and help to bring us in; Game of Thrones’ Sir Jorah, Iain Glen, is also here, but rather sadly turned into a one-man diarrhea joke that’s meant to be comic relief. (As such, it has nothing on the scene in which Rickman walks into a toy shop to buy a doll for his daughter and is baffled by the available options, which he reads aloud.)
Hood wants you to debate the morality of preemptive strikes, but very few of the actual arguments presented are moral. Each character is mostly trying to cover his or her own ass by passing the buck upward; only a token hysterical liberal minister puts forth that it’s better to have terrorists kill 85 innocents than for the UK to be sullied with even one civilian death on its hands. This argument is rejected by other characters until they realize that the moral standpoint can become a PR standpoint, thus does killing or not-killing become about what the masses will think (and therefore vote for) rather than what individuals think. The characters are thereby passing that buck to us, hoping we ponder it.
Where the film plays more strongly is in simply making you think about how difficult military decisions must be, day-in and day-out. Eye in the Sky opens the conversation wide enough to raise comparisons between drone warfare and ground warfare, or to probe assessment of Bill Maher’s argument that drone operators are cowards.
You, the viewer, don’t have to make the choice. You can put yourself in the scenario and sweat with the characters, then walk away after the conclusion and not have to dwell on it again. Then it may occur that situations analogous to this are happening over and over again, constantly, in the modern blurred-lines battlefield. Maybe if enough of us think about this, we’ll figure out better ways to do things someday.
In the meantime, Eye in the Sky is a solid thriller, but a visually static one that doesn’t particularly requires a big screen. Three burritos out of five, which should be equally tasty in a month or two when the price goes down.
Movie stills via Bleecker Street