Eye In The Sky (2016) – Movie Review

Eye In The Sky
Directed by: Gavin Hood
Written by: Guy Hibbert
Starring: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman & Barkhad Abdi
Music: Paul Hepker & Mark Kilian
Certificate: 15
Release Date: April 15th 2016

Hollywood is gonna have to address how current wars are portrayed on film. Almost all prior wars in history that involved direct conflict have large, epic battles that can enthral audiences and create spectacle like the storming of Normandy Beach in ‘Saving Private Ryan‘ or the assault on Fort Wagner in ‘Glory‘. However, a lot of modern conflict takes now place on computer screens, high in the sky through drones without much direct military involvement.

That’s not to say that there’s no soldier-on-soldier conflict anymore, of course not. But the fact of the matter is, more and more drones are being created and piloted every day and it’s not unreasonable to assume that future-conflicts will be taking place remotely, with the combatants safe in their control rooms. ‘Eye In The Sky‘, from director Gavin Hood who directed the 2013 adaptation of ‘Ender’s Game‘ which tackled the theme of remote-controlled warfare, offers an in-depth look at the process behind drone-missions and just how intense such a situation can be, especially when there’s so much procedure to follow.
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Set in the present day, Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren) is overseeing a drone mission where the objective is to kidnap several high-level extremists in Kenya. She’s over-seeing the mission in a base in Hertfordshire, Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Rickman) is with members of U.K. parliament to witness the event in London, Steve Watts (Paul) is piloting the drone from a base in Nevada and Jama Farah (Abdi) is in Kenya as a field agent. However, they quickly discover that the extremists are in the process of arming several suicide vests to prepare for a terrorist attack and the situation escalates from a “kidnap” mission to a “shoot to kill” mission. But with political procedure to follow and the potential for drone-strike casualties, the team must race against the clock to deal with this situation as safely and as effectively as possible.

Taking place almost entirely in real-time, ‘Eye in the Sky‘ does a terrific job at demonstrating how global and far-reaching these military operations are. Helen Mirren’s Colonel wakes up before the sun even rises in the morning in England, Barkhad Abdi is on the ground in Kenya during a bright morning and Aaron Paul is piloting a drone at night in Nevada. ‘Eye in the Sky‘ establishing the time of day in each respective country and hoping from morning to day to night so frequently helps to sell the fact that this is warfare in an increasingly connected world. All the while, everyone is able to communicate with everyone else and watch the action unfolding through numerous screens across the globe, with Alan Rickman’s General relaying information in London with suited and well-dressed members of parliament. Welcome to the new front-line.
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Drone warfare is a very controversial subject that has proven effective but also has resulted in immense, incalculable collateral damage across the world (I say incalculable, because the military often don’t even know who they’re killing or how many are being killed in the vast majority of drone strikes) whilst also allowing for effective surveillance of potential threats and also allowing the safe elimination or capture of many dangerous targets. Because of these complex pros-and-cons, the subject of drone warfare has to be tackled as an adult. We’ve seen what happens when movies goes to one level of extreme recently (‘London Has Fallen‘ essentially acting as pro-drone, immature and dangerous propaganda) but ‘Eye In The Sky‘ is much more mature in its thought-process as it argues for both sides rather extensively.

Things escalate in the movie when a kidnapping mission becomes a shoot-to-kill mission and as a result, all of the protocol changes and decisions have to be made very quickly in order to potentially prevent numerous deaths. However, when a young girl sets up a stand to sell bread right next to the danger-zone, actions need to be taken to prevent her potential death. While Colonel Powell sees her on the screen as a statistic (80% chance of injury or 60% chance of life-threatening-injury and there are dozens of potential algorithms which determine her fate) it’s Pilot Watts who is the one who will pull the trigger of the drone while the Foreign Secretary who has to approve the decisions is stuck on the toilet.
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Yeah, about that last point, ‘Eye In The Sky‘ is as darkly funny as it is morally ambiguous. This is about as black a comedy as war movies can be because of some of the ridiculous scenarios our “heroes” have to go through. As the chain of command goes higher and higher, more people try and divert responsibility in a desperate attempt to keep their hands clean. It’s comical in its legitimate-absurdity and Alan Rickman’s first scene even has him going to a toy-shop, in military uniform, to try and find a certain brand of doll; an errand he needs to run before work even though he’s pretty much going to war. And then when the U.K. politicians start arguing about trying to win the “propaganda war”, just in case it’s discovered that they approved potentially killing one innocent target to prevent the (supposed) further deaths of hundreds? ‘Eye In The Sky‘ is effortlessly able to straddle the lines between being a sharp, pitch-black comedy and also a deathly serious moral quandary as it’ll stick with you for days, making you wrack your brain for the best-case scenario but there’s no definitive answer on that horizon.

This is what an intelligent discussion looks like, ‘London Has Fallen‘.

It’s the moral debate that takes up the brunt of the movie with little room here to flesh out these characters outside of their archetypical roles. It’s mainly the cast that help to elevate the material which, while hardly terrible or bad, doesn’t do a great job at fleshing out or humanising the cast on a screenplay-level. Helen Mirren is an ideal lead for this material as she has the on-screen presence and imposing demeanour that commands respect, Aaron Paul possibly gives his best post-“Breaking Bad” performance and Barkhad Abdi appears in his first role since his Academy Award nominated turn in ‘Captain Phillips‘ and he manages to impress here again. And it’d be a shame to not mention the late-Alan Rickman in his final on-screen role who may only be a supporting player here, but makes a substantial impression all the way through as well as ending the movie with some incredibly powerful delivery which hits home the fact that we really have lost a great talent.
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It’s also worth mentioning actors in smaller roles like Phoebe Fox as the drone co-pilot, Iain Glen as the Foreign Secretary and Monica Dolan as one of the U.K. politicians opposing the drone strike. And let’s not forget Babou Ceesay as the risk-assessment officer who gets possibly one of the funniest, deadpan moments of the entire film. Once again, these are small roles that wouldn’t immediately leap off the page because of rather flat-characterisation, but thanks to strong casting and confident performances it manages to engage more than it ideally should. It just makes me wonder how much more effective it could have been if we knew exactly WHO was pulling the trigger and what is informing their hesitation outside of the singular context.

But ‘Eye In The Sky‘ is not a character-study. It’s a moral one. It just so happens that most of that conflict takes place as people across the world look at computer skills with no car chases and very little gunfire being shown to the audience. I’d dread to think what such a low-concept, high-tension idea would have been like in less capable hands.
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Because ‘Eye In The Sky‘ is a brilliantly polished production with brilliant location work, a terrific sense of atmosphere and an omnipresent feeling of dread despite the drab, indoor environments. To make these environments pop, the lighting is absolutely on-point and helping to get across most of the dramatic heft. Like I said earlier, the sense of the different time-periods gives the movie a sense of variety and the aerial drone footage is appropriately and effectively used.

While we do have great location work, make-up and practical stunts the real stand-out of the production is the razor-fine editing by Megan Gill which makes the globe-hopping, screen-watching visuals somehow compelling and incredibly tense, even if there are some pauses that feel a second or two too long to try and draw out the moment. The way the locations are filmed helps the movie feel inherently cinematic and worthy of the big-screen, the make-up is strong and the music by Paul Hepker and Mark Kilian ratchets up the tension to armrest-ripping levels. Although there are a few elements like a high-tech camera-fly and an almost comical electronic hummingbird which makes this otherwise grounded narrative step over into the realms of science-fiction which don’t fully gel.
eye in the sky 6Eye in the Sky‘ takes a bold, uncompromising look at the new front-line of warfare and does so maturely and manages to observe and debate both sides of this immensely complex, topical issue. With 10,000 drones and counting currently circling the globe, these questions need to be asked and ‘Eye in the Sky‘ is a gripping and tense thriller which is bolstered by strong performances that help to lend credence to characters who could have easily come across as flat. It’s a film that could easily have failed in less capable hands but director Gavin Hood and editor Megan Gill have orchestrated an ambiguous and mature war movie that will leave you wrestling with the questions it poses for days after watching it. And even then, you probably still won’t have an answer.

I give ‘Eye in the Sky‘ 4 stars out of 5.

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Posted In: 2016 Reviews Current Reviews Reviews

Author: Trilbee

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Posted: 3rd May 16

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