Eye in the Sky (2015)

2017 #8
Gavin Hood | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & South Africa / English & Somali | 15 / R

Eye in the Sky

Drone warfare is a fairly hot and contentious issue of our times, though as it seems to have “just kinda happened” I’m not sure how much significant public debate there’s been around it. It’s certainly provided fodder for moviemakers, however, with multiple productions seeking to be “the one about drones”. I’ve heard the best of these is Good Kill (though IMDb ratings disagree), but that’ll have to wait for another day (I’ve been sitting on this review since frickin’ January because I’ve still not got round to Good Kill!) Even if Eye in the Sky is the inferior film, it’s no slouch.

After a multinational mission is launched to capture wanted terrorists in Kenya, surveillance observes them prepping suicide bombers. The mission objective is changed to “kill”, but commanders watching from afar via drone are forced to reconsider their options due to a civilian presence near the target. It’s a tense thriller driven by a compelling moral dilemma — in fact, the dilemma is an old one: would you sacrifice one innocent life to potentially save dozens more? It’s just that it’s now framed in the super-modern context of using drones to dispatch death from the other side of the world.

Someone's got to make the call

Getting ahead of myself a little now, but events build to a very tense climax. That’s how you want your thrillers to end, isn’t it? It also pays off the sometimes slow, borderline stagey “people talking in rooms” film that precedes it. Maybe that’s unfair — yes, it’s people talking in rooms, but there’s dynamism in what they’re debating and, er, the number of different rooms it takes place in… It also has a very plausible line in the passing of the decision-making buck, up the chain through the military, then through politicians. I guess for this to work the operation depicted had to be British-led because, as the film reveals, the American military machine would’ve had no such compunction about possibly killing a little girl.

Much of the film lets you make up your own mind about its ethical conundrums, which is a strong point; but then, after all the actual debating is done and decisions have been made, it uses its final scene to show an outcome it could’ve left open-ended. This makes it seem to come down quite heavily in one direction. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with having a position and advocating it in art, but for a film which seems designed to tackle a contentious issue and put it up for genuine debate, it ends up feeling a tad one-sided. That said, there’s a long and well-liked screed on Letterboxd about how “it’s a film with an agenda that pretends to have none”, that agenda being to “have you rooting for the bombing of a little girl” — which is funny because I felt that, if anything, it came down a little too heavily the other way.

Emote control

One thing that distracted me to an inordinate degree was the agents on the ground using cameras disguised as birds and bugs — not just models with cameras in them, but imitation creatures that have the ability to fly around, reposition, etc. Even if such tech is possible nowadays, would Kenyan forces have access to it? And even if it’d been provided to them by their US/UK allies, would the equipment produce results of such good quality, or be capable of sending the images across such distances? Surely real-life drones are the size and shape they are (i.e. pretty big) for a reason? I guess the applicable point about this is: if you’re trying to make a serious modern-day moral thriller, don’t throw James Bond tech in there.

Nonetheless, Eye in the Sky manages to put a very-present moral issue up for debate, framing it as a kind of case study so that it also serves as a tense thriller. Thought-provoking and nail-biting.

4 out of 5

Ender’s Game (2013)

2015 #146
Gavin Hood | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Adapted from the classic young adult sci-fi novel by Orson Scott “bigoted idiot” Card, Ender’s Game is the story of Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), who displays uncommon aptitude in a military programme to train children to fight against an alien race that attacked Earth decades earlier. Sent to a training centre in space, Ender must battle his fellow candidates to prove their worth to their hardened commander, Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford), ready for the real battle to come.

Ender’s Game endured a pretty mixed reception a couple of years ago (not helped by the media exposure given to Card’s less-than-savoury personal views), and it’s quite a mixed film: for every positive, a negative follows close behind. It’s not helped by its first act, where the film seems to struggle with its own setup. After that, however, it’s a fairly well structured story, in which you can actually believe Ender is learning to be a better leader. Normally when a movie features “an excellent military strategist” we’re told that and never shown it, but here we see how Ender’s skills as a strategist develop and are exhibited.

The rest of writer-director Gavin Hood’s screenplay is, again, a mixed bag. The dialogue is frequently clunky, particularly struggling with exposition — there are utterly dead scenes where characters just explain the plot to each other — but, while it is at no point strong, it’s often serviceable. There are strong themes, however, several of which have relevance to our modern world. Unfortunately, none feel fully developed or explored. It tips its hat to things like drone warfare, child soldiers, and understanding our enemy, but that’s all it does: acknowledge those parallels exist, then refuse to explore them. Conversely, the music is too heavy-handed, taking on the burden of providing emotion that’s lacking from the screenplay.

Most of the cast are very good. Asa Butterfield well conveys a moderately complex character, though I can believe others’ comments that Ender is more fully developed in the book. Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin offer able support; Harrison Ford proves he’s still awesome; Ben Kingsley battles what turns out to be a New Zealand accent (I’d assumed it was South African) in a cameo-sized turn; Viola Davis is ludicrously underused — she does basically nothing, then walks into Ford’s office and essentially declares, “I am no longer needed by the plot, I quit.”

At least there are solid action/sci-fi thrills on offer. The inter-student practice fights in the Danger Room (or whatever it was called) are really good — suitably exciting and fun, with impressive effects work. There are many good visuals in the film, but then strong CGI is par for the course these days. That’s why the space station stuff is best: the alien race and their planet are well-realised but also feel like nothing new; and the space station’s corridors, offices, and bunk room sets are well done, though as derived from familiar real-life and/or near-future styles as much as many other SF movies; but the station’s giant glass-walled zero-G training arena is stunning.

Sadly, after all that training fun, once the cadets jet off to the other side of the galaxy for a rushed third act, interest evaporates speedily. It even has to work hard to sell its own twist as a twist! (Spoilers follow in this paragraph.) In a simulation for a war, Ender does what he’d do to win that war. Then he’s told it wasn’t a simulation, it was the actual war… and he’s all cross. I mean, okay, the fella kinda has a point when he gets angry afterwards: they’ve lied to him, and maybe he would’ve behaved differently if he’d known. But the point of the training was to teach them what they needed to do to win, and it taught them that, and he did it. Maybe this twist works in the book, but in the film it felt somehow unearned.

Ender’s Game is not all it could be, but as a straightforward young-adult sci-fi action-adventure, I really rather enjoyed the majority of it.

4 out of 5