Skip to main content

We need to put the Hellfire through that roof right now.

Eye in the Sky
(2015)

(SPOILERS) The movies can’t get enough of drones, whether its critiquing them in indie features no one will see, utilising them as the stock-in-trade explosive plot device of the average blockbuster, or simply making the pictures themselves with them. Last year we were graced with the indulgent angst fest of a boozy Ethan Hawke going off the deep end in Good Kill; it was solid on the incongruity of delivering destruction from a storage crate in Vegas, much less so on the personal demons of its main character. The plus side of largely limiting itself to a character piece was that writer-director Andrew Niccol honed in on the disconnect between worlds. Eye in the Sky is much more traditional in that regard, addressing its subject matter through a high-stakes mission in progress. As such, it stands as a more effective as a piece of storytelling, even if that story assumes the sanctity and rectitude of the War on Terror, and picks relatively easy targets from which to fashion its moral quandaries.


Which, essentially, revolve around the utilitarian doctrine espoused by the military, based on probabilities of collateral damage (the minimum number of innocent casualties resulting from a strike versus the maximum loss of life perpetrated by a suicide bomber). There’s never any question here of the pervasive threat of the Islamic menace lurking at every street corner and in every dwelling place, plotting to sacrifice their next willing participant in the eternal fight against Western values. But then, Gavin Hood, once the director of Tsotsi and the quite-good-up-to-a-point Rendition, has already put on his self-righteous hat about Eye in the Sky’s virtues vis-à-vis London Has Fallen (“How can you put out such a piece of racist garbage and think it isn’t strategically detrimental to the fight against extremism?”), suggesting he doesn’t see how his own feature seamlessly slots into the prevailing narrative.


He even suggested Gerard Butler should be ashamed of making London Has Fallen, although The Guardian interviewer failed to ask whether X-Men Origins: Wolverine elicited that very response from Hood himself. Hood said “I think they have made a film they think is cool. And that’s repugnant”. You couldn’t accuse Eye in the Sky of thinking it’s cool, but it’s probably guilty of equally crass, manipulative tactics in its own way (I say probably, because I’ve only seen Olympus Has Fallen thus far, and while I’m obviously very much looking forward to London, it will just have to wait).


Eye is a picture that loads its deck at every turn in order to run through its treadmill of moral musings. I wouldn’t say the result reveals Hood as a glib philosopher per se, so much as one who clearly doesn’t perceive how his attempts to inject substance and debate into mainstream movies have been left wanting; his last film was the adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, which similarly revolved around utilitarian debates on the greater good legitimising the suffering of the few, or the other, and also fell short of its aspirations.


Guy Hibbert’s Eye screenplay is actually most rewarding when it probes the legalese and bureaucratic minefield of a proposed action, simply because Hood can find no way to massage the accompanying moral baggage without indulging in emotive overkill. Alan Rickman’s lieutenant general even calls the picture out accordingly at one point, querying whether the assembled politicians would be vacillating over whether to approve the strike on residence housing two wanted terrorist suspects (and a suicide bomber loaded up and ready to blow) if someone other than an adorable little girl selling bread was smack bang in the fall-out zone.


But, of course, there has to be an adorable little girl selling bread (who isn’t really that adorable, she’s an ardent capitalist who takes the opportunity to sell the loaves twice; perhaps this is why she has to die).


And, of course, there have to be bluntly manifested motivators to the plot. Helen Mirren’s Colonel wants to get her kill by any means necessary, even if that means manufacturing damage estimates to ensure the go ahead. The weasely politicians want to pass the buck to a man (which is moderately amusing, and both Jeremy Northam and Iain Glen – the latter amid a terrible attack of toilet troubles while making a presentation at an arms fair, of which I couldn’t decide if this was Hood attempting to make a point about the self-perpetuating nature of conflict, but I suspect not – acquit their characters in an appropriately gutless manner).


But Monica Dolan’s liberal squealer seems written to be loathed for taking the moral high ground, particularly so when Rickman reprimands her for suggesting a soldier might observe a casual attitude to life-and-death decision making (“Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war”). Hood’s desperately keen to be fair to the idea of a justification for such remote-controlled death dealing, provided all appropriate precautions are taken, and give him his due for not wanting to be drawn into absolutes, but the conversation becomes far less provocative once you’ve given ground at the outset.


The level of contrivance does much to undermine the earnestness with which Hood treats his telling. After a certain point, the continued delays to the go-ahead become merely farcical. Which may be the point when it comes to Whitehall bureaucracy, but it feels more like the obvious artifice of a plot doing its darnedest to work its audience. Every detail, from Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) being required to squeeze his unlikely drone tech (that humming bird wouldn’t fool Inspector Clouseau) into ever tighter spaces while being prevailed upon by an annoying kid and trigger-happy Kenyan troops, to Aaron Paul (in a decent big screen showing, there may be hope for him yet beyond Breaking Bad) as a pilot baulking at killing a little cutie, is shameless button-pushing that can only serve to turn the debate into a glossy feigning of seriousness.


Formidable as Mirren and Rickman (in his last screen appearance, although he has some upcoming voice work; he will be missed) are, and they’re naturally commanding, neither really convinces as a military type. Perhaps that’s Hood wanting to disarm us of our expectations, in hand with emphasising the artifice and remoteness of their locations, what with Rickman bookended by buying a doll for his granddaughter and Mirren proving the most ruthless customer in the movie, but it nevertheless feels a little like dress-up. Hood’s a decent filmmaker, of course. No auteur, but he has a good, clear facility with pace, editing, geography and structure, so he ensures that, even as you remain dubious of the picture’s capacity for depth, you’re drawn in.


Eye in the Sky will doubtless become yet another War on Terror movie no one sees. American Sniper aside, naturally. Was that one acceptable because it eschewed liberal handwringing? After all, none of them have really interrogated the struggle being struggled against, merely the methods involved. As a result, even the better ones are somewhat toothless, supporting the established doctrine by default. This one does itself no favours by portraying those waging the good fight as painfully well-meaning, fearful of voters, or at least couching themselves in the language of the righteous cause. The only actually bad people get blown up. Along with the adorable little girl.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.

You think I contaminated myself, you think I did that?

Silkwood (1983)
Mike Nichol’s film about union activist Karen Silkwood, who died under suspicious circumstances in a car accident in 1974, remains a powerful piece of work; even more so in the wake of Fukushima. If we transpose the microcosm of employees of a nuclear plant, who would rather look the other way in favour of a pay cheque, to the macrocosm of a world dependent on an energy source that could spell our destruction (just don’t think about it and, if you do, be reassured by the pronouncements of “experts” on how safe it all is; and if that doesn’t persuade you be under no illusion that we need this power now, future generations be damned!) it is just as relevant.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

We’re going to find that creature they call the Yeti.

The Abominable Snowman (1957)
The Abominable Snowman follows the first two Quatermass serials as the third Hammer adaptation of a Nigel Kneale BBC work. As with those films, Val Guest takes the directorial reins, to mixed results. Hammer staple Peter Cushing repeats his role from The Creature (the title of the original teleplay). The result is worthy in sentiment but unexceptional in dramatic heft. Guest fails to balance Kneale’s idea of essentially sympathetic creatures with the disintegration of the group bent on finding them.

Nevertheless, Kneale’s premise still stands out. The idea that the Yeti is an essentially shy, peaceful, cryptozoological beastie is now commonplace, but Kneale adds a further twist by suggesting that they are a distinct and in some respects more advance parallel branch in the evolution of hominids (the more extravagant notion that they are in some way extra-dimensional is absent, but with the powers thy sport here wouldn’t be such a leap). Cushing’s Rollason is…