This techno-realistic thriller will challenge you to consider the ethics of drone warfare.
Posted: 9 March 2016, 1:45 p.m. EST
by Kristin Davis, Aerospace America contributing writer
“What would you do?”
That’s the question South African film director Gavin Hood wants to inspire audience members to think about when they watch the drone-war story, “Eye in the Sky,” set to open March 18 in Washington, D.C.
The film centers on the fictional British intelligence officer Col. Katherine Powell (Academy Award winner Helen Mirren), who has tracked a group of al-Shabab terrorists to a safe house in Nairobi, Kenya. The house is being watched inside and out by camera-equipped drones, and it is surrounded by civilians, including one particular child whose fate is central to the plot.
What ensues is an emotional shoot-don’t-shoot dilemma involving decision makers on four continents. They must weigh issues of humanity, politics and military strategy, and they must do it fast.
Helen Mirren stars as Col. Katherine Powell in Gavin Hood’s “Eye in the Sky." (Click on image for larger version)
When I reached Hood by phone to talk about the film, he described it as a classic “trolley problem on steroids.” He was referring to the ethical thought exercise in which a participant is asked whether he would pull a lever to divert a train to save five people if it meant killing one.
As you’ve probably surmised, Hood wants the audience to do more than watch this film.
“So many [movies] we consume and digest and spit out and move on to the next thing,” Hood says. “I hope at the end they are left with a great deal to talk about.”
Indeed, after viewing a screening of “Eye in the Sky,” the story still lingers on my conscience, in no small part for its hauntingly realistic portrayal of modern warfare, from drones that look like insects and birds to pilots who are empowered to end human lives with the squeeze of a red trigger halfway around the world.
When screenwriter Guy Hibbert began penning the script eight years ago, the concept of drone warfare was so new that “people didn’t take it seriously,” says Hood, who joined the project in 2013. Since then, “the conversations have only escalated. Where is warfare going as we automate it more and more, as we take boots off the ground and replace those, frankly, with robotic weapons of war? It’s a very interesting and controversial aspect of war.”
The spies in the movie deploy a flapping, hummingbird drone based on a real-world design by AeroVironment of Simi Valley, California. The bird was developed in 2011 under a DARPA research contract, which is also working on technologies similar to the beetle drone that also appears in “Eye in the Sky.”
“There is a push to create smaller and smaller drones that can be useful but also dangerous,” Hood says. “How do we manage this world? How do you feel from a philosophical, moral and ethical point of view? Welcome to the world of drone warfare in all its complexities.”
In that way, “Eye in the Sky” is not so much about the technology of war but rather how it is used.
In preparation for the film, Hood and Hibbert sat in on classes at the U.S. Naval Academy, including a course on the morality of drone warfare which is intended to drive home the point that images on a computer screen are, in fact, still human beings. The filmmakers also sought out British and American military experts to realistically explore the moral dilemma facing each of the characters.
I spoke to the Air Force pilot who advised Hood on the condition that I identify him only by his call sign, Hercules. He said he wanted the filmmakers to know how pilots cope with situations involving innocents. “We’ll see fighting moving toward an area where there are civilians. What do you do? Drop the missile while the fighting is going on? Is there a way to divert the fight? I live by the mantra that you can never take a decision back,” he told me.
Hercules has seen the film and is pleased with it.
“The thing I love about this film,” Hercules said, “is the way [Hood] approached it with respect and the knowledge that is available. It’s an empirical look at the complexities of war. It takes warfare and decision-making to a whole new level. It’s good for me as an aviator. What would I do in this situation?”
“Eye in the Sky” avoids telling viewers what to think. The goal of movie is get viewers talking about the ethics and long-term, strategic outcomes of drone warfare.
“In this whole new world of movement toward automated warfare, policy and legal framework are lagging,” Hood said. “It’s important these conversations happen.”
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