If the nuclear bomb was the great fear-inducing topic of the 20th century, then drone warfare is surely its equivalent in the 21st. Movies as mainstream as Captain America: Civil War and Jose Padhila’s RoboCop remake have dealt with the subject in a sci-fi context; Andrew Niccol’s claustrophobic Good Kill, starring Ethan Hawke, explored the psychological impact of remote strikes on the American pilot tasked with pulling the trigger.
Directed by Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Ender’s Game), Eye In The Sky is an ensemble drama-thriller which ambitiously tries to tackle drone warfare from multiple angles: the various levels of politicians, generals and soldiers who authorise the use of missile strikes on targets thousands of miles away, and the spies, would-be terrorists and innocent civilians caught in the crosshairs.
At a dimly-lit British army base deep underground, Colonel Powell (Helen Mirren) follows her quarry with a cool, detached eye: a British citizen who’s joined the cause of a terrorist group called Al Shabab. With the assistance of drone pilot Watts (Aaron Paul), stationed at an air base in the Nevada Desert, Colonel Powell watches as the suspect she’s watching enters a terrorist compound in Nairobi. And when a hidden camera reveals that a group of would-be suicide bombers is arming explosives in the building, what begins as a surveillance mission transforms into something far more deadly.
A moral dilemma quickly unfolds. Should the hovering drone drop its payload, causing potential civilian casualties but nipping the bomb threat in the bud? Or should the trigger be pulled, eliminating the threat – the humanitarian, political and moral fallout be damned?
Cutting dizzyingly between locations, Hood takes us up and down the chain of command. When Colonel Powell requires authorisation to strike, she first has to communicate with General Benson (Alan Rickman), who’s holding a conference at COBRA in Whitehall. When the meeting there can’t reach a consensus, the decision’s passed on to the British Home Secretary, who’s holed up in a plush Singapore hotel room with a vicious bout of food poisoning. Fumbling over the dilemma because there’s also an American citizen in the terrorists’ stronghold, he defers judgement to the US Secretary General.And so it goes.
Meanwhile, Aaron Paul’s drone pilot sits in his swivel chair with co-pilot Gershon (Phoebe Fox), looking down at the dusty township going about its business on his screen. They both know that, at the word of their superiors, they’ll be ordered to launch a missile at the strangers in front of them.
Often suspenseful, sometimes laboured and blackly comic in places, Eye In The Sky places a new form of warfare under the microscope. Where Good Kill was set a few years in the past, Hood’s film deals with technology so cutting edge that it almost seems absurd. One spy controls a miniature drone disguised as a humming bird; we watch it flutter around like Bubo the tin owl out of Clash Of The Titans. Another spy, this one played by Barkhad Abdi (Captain Philips), pilots an even tinier spy camera, this one disguised as an insect and controlled by his mobile phone. I can’t speak to the accuracy of these gizmos, but the scenes involving them are taut and disturbingly voyeuristic.
Indeed, the dramatic mileage writer Guy Hibbert gets out of Eye In The Sky, given that we’re effectively watching people staring at screens or Skype each other, is highly impressive. We’re constantly made aware of the limitations of even this most advanced form of technology. Once launched, missiles take an agonising 50 seconds to reach their target – a window in which all kinds of things can change on the ground. Ultimately, the movie boils down to one stark, horrifying choice: do the assorted generals and politicians sacrifice the life of one innocent bystander – a little girl selling bread on a street corner – in order to prevent the possibility of a much greater atrocity?
In a movie with such a large ensemble, the performances are sometimes a mixed bag. Aaron Paul’s saucer-eyed and fractious with his finger on the trigger; Helen Mirren is rather one-note as a colonel consumed by her desire to catch her mark. The undoubted highlight is the late Alan Rickman, who brings wry humour and humanity to what could be a thanklessly stiff role; fittingly, he get’s the film’s closing statement, and it’s beautifully delivered.
The drone warfare era arguably deserves its own Dr Strangelove: a movie directed by a genius which highlights the absurdity and savagery of a technology over which ordinary mortals have no control. Eye In The Sky isn’t that film; it’s a little too earnest and baldly manipulative to truly soar. Nevertheless, it’s an effective, disquieting drama, which in its best moments offers a chilling insight into a world we only glancingly see or hear about in the news.
Eye In The Sky is out on the 15th April in UK cinemas.