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

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).