This is warfare today. It’s a colonel in a bunker in outer London (surrounded by computers) and a general in an office building in Whitehall (surrounded by politicians) and a drone pilot in Las Vegas (flying a robot armed with missiles and also, more importantly, with cameras, from thousands of miles away) and a facial-recognition technician at a workstation in Pearl Harbor and an agent of the Kenyan military on the ground in Nairobi collaborating in an operation to capture most-wanted terrorists in a civilian suburban neighborhood in a country that neither the US nor the UK is at war with. It is ultra high-tech and real-time across multiple time zones, assisted by who knows how many orbital satellites or what level of near-AI computing power. It feels, on one hand, like science fiction. It is, on the other hand, indisputably what is happening now.
If this is war in 2016, then do we need to call it world war? Are we, in fact, living in the middle of World War III? Because these things that are indisputably happening now are not only international in scope, they transcend the polite fictions of national borders in a way that only a view from orbit can facilitate. Or maybe this isn’t war. Is this, perhaps, policing, a new kind of policing that is moving faster than the legalities of borders and ideas about national sovereignty have been able to catch up with yet?
None of those are questions that Eye in the Sky explicitly asks: they’re just things that have bubbled up as I’ve thought about this stupendously important and provocative film in the week since I saw it. Director Gavin Hood (Ender’s Game, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and screenwriter Guy Hibbert (Five Minutes of Heaven) raise plenty of other moral, legal, and ethical conundrums, but they do not attempt to resolve them — because they’re too big and too difficult and probably do not even have definitive answers — even as they tackle head-on notions of how politics and propaganda play off each other in our new world in which a kid with a cell phone and a YouTube account who happens to be in the vicinity of, say, a drone missile strike on somebody’s house, can be as influential as the big badass countries with their science-fiction arsenals.
There is so much going on in Eye in the Sky, and every single bit of it is thrilling on levels intellectual, philosophical, and visceral. This is, on the surface, a thoroughly riveting potboiler that, perhaps, invents a new subgenre: the modern military procedural, one not too far removed from, say, The Hunt for Red October. It also puts a new spin on the idea of found footage, for much of how we come to understand what is going on comes via the very same satellite and drone cameras and other spy video tech that Helen Mirren’s (Trumbo, Woman in Gold) colonel and Alan Rickman’s (A Little Chaos, A Promise) general and Aaron Paul’s (Triple 9, Fathers & Daughters) drone pilot and Kim Engelbrecht’s facial-recognition tech are using to make their decisions. This is a movie about people sitting around watching computer screens, and debating and arguing about what they are seeing and how they should react to it, and because the film unfolds almost in real time, we see what they see at the same time they see it, and at the same distance. Which makes it easier for us to imagine ourselves in their shoes and able to contribute to the debate, not something that might be said about many movies about war or the military: most of us have not ever stood on a battlefield. But now war is waged from a conference table in a comfy office building, or from in front of a rig that looks like an elaborate videogame. That’s much more likely a scenario that many of us could see ourselves in.
But this is not a film, either, that has any interest in facile dismissals of what is going on here as “mere” videogame warfare: every character onscreen is too actutely aware of the human stakes to see it as a game. Those human stakes are the crux of the conundrums: when new intelligence, which only suddenly comes into existence because sneaky spy cameras discover it, necessitates a change of, literally, battle plan, how to decide what is the best thing to do? And what is “best,” anyway? Is it okay to pursue a course of action that will probably result in the death of an innocent now in order to save a far larger number of lives later? Is it fair to make such a decision when that one innocent life has a face you can see now – thanks to your scarily capable technology — and those future lives saved are only hypothetical at this point? Yes, this whole movie is basically a drone-warfare trolley problem. But that’s amazing. Baked into Eye in the Sky is how it forces you to think about what you are seeing, and how you would make the sorts of decisions the characters onscreen have to make. And that’s before you succumb to the reality that none of this is hypothetical, that these are the sorts of decisions that real people who are not horrible people are being forced to make every day.
The movie that Good Kill should have been, Eye in the Sky is, astonishingly, as entertaining — on a basic escapist level of transporting you away, for a couple of hours, from your own life and getting you caught up in someone else’s — as it is irrefutably engaging, on a level that is essential for us as citizens who are players in our civic and political environment. This is a perfect storm of adult cinema experience… and one that is vanishingly rare at the moment.