Military drones have increasingly starred in Hollywood films as flying robotic spies and assassins for the U.S. government. Occasionally, a superhero such as Superman will punch a $12-million Predator drone out of the sky. But just a handful of films have seriously considered the implications of modern drone warfare being waged globally on a daily basis.
A new film called “Eye in the Sky” tries to consider drone surveillance and drone strikes from all sides of the conflict. The thriller by South African director Gavin Hood and British screenwriter Guy Hibbert keeps ratcheting up the fictional stakes for military officers and civilian policymakers trying to decide whether taking out top terrorist targets is worth the risk of injuring or killing an innocent. It provides a close look at the U.S. military Reaper drones, micro drones shaped like birds or insects and facial recognition software used in modern drone warfare. But more crucially, it homes in on the ethical debate behind the use of drones and other military technologies under complex circumstances.
Stories with moral complexity and futuristic military technologies are nothing new for Gavin Hood. The filmmaker previously directed the 2013 Hollywood adaption of the science fiction classic “Ender’s Game.” This time around, Hood was gracious enough to answer some of my questions following an “Eye in the Sky”press conference held in New York City on March 9. What follows is a spoiler-free discussion of how “Eye in the Sky” raises certain issues surrounding drone warfare.
Lovesick Cyborg: There’s a lot to cover when we’re talking about modern drone warfare. Given the film’s lean running time, was there anything you didn’t get to include that you wish you had?
Gavin Hood: The film is 102 minutes long. The idea behind making the film was to do two things. Bring as wide an audience as possible into a film that would play like a thriller in order to give them a thriller experience and an entertainment experience, while at the same time seeding thoughts and questions in their minds that would give them a great deal to talk about. We did not want to tell the audience what to think. We did not want to preach to the audience in any way. We wanted to offer different perspectives through different characters involved in these drone operations and leave the audience a bit like a jury to draw their own conclusion.
What I do feel like is you could pause the film at any moment and you could talk about drone pilots and post-traumatic stress disorder, the response of different pilots, the ability to compartmentalize, and have a whole discussion. And some people are having that discussion. You could pause on the teeny tiny drone and talk tech. Is this teeny tiny drone valid? Where is it going, how did you design it? I’m happy to talk about that. What happens when that teeny tiny drone is weaponized, because the whole plot would fall apart. Fly the teeny tiny drone up to the head of the terrorist, detonate, blow his eyeball out and end of story.
So one of the things that’s difficult in this film is where is the sweet spot? When we were making the film, there were people we were speaking to who were telling us where the technology in terms of teeny tiny drones was going. The hummingbird had already been developed. It exists, you can find it on YouTube. Teeny tiny drones are being developed. They’re taking many different forms like dragonflies. But what they have already achieved, which is ahead of our film in some ways, is the idea that they fly in swarms.
Where they’re going is to weaponize them. Where they’re going is to put facial recognition software in them, send that little drone into a crowd, find you specifically, and blow a little anthrax into your nose or blow up next to your temple. So it is impossible to suddenly stop the advancement of technology and freeze it in its tracks. I hope we’re at a sweet spot where what you see in the film is pretty much where we’re at or where we will be in the next six months.
The bigger questions than the technology for me are what are the moral and ethical questions surrounding the use of technology. A lot of people talk about this Reaper drone as the savior of modern war and it’s brilliant and it minimizes collateral damage. It doesn’t minimize collateral damage any more than a sniper’s bullet, which actually does the job better. This is a tactical weapon. It is not a strategy, it is a weapon. What is the strategy in different circumstances that would best use or not use this weapon?
Those questions are questions that should be asked and have been asked for hundreds of years and we should not get distracted by the love of the tech. “Do you like drones?” Well, I don’t know, what are you using the drone for? And what is the result of using the drone? Did we achieve the objective of reducing extremist ideology by taking out this individual? Or did we take the wrong individual out because our intelligence was bad? And that question applies whether you’re using a drone, a sniper’s bullet or a guillotine.
So this is my pet sort of thing, really. My issue is: let’s not get so hung up on the question of the drone. Let’s know what the drone is, know what it can do as a tactical weapon. It can do things that a sniper’s bullet can’t. A sniper’s bullet can do what it can’t. It can do things that a ballistic missile can’t do. It depends on what you’re trying to achieve. The question is is the use of this weapon in the particular circumstances advancing the overall strategic objective of reducing extremism in the world? That, for me, is really the question.
Lovesick Cyborg: It sounds like you’re saying there is a lot of temptation to single out drone warfare as being highly unique—and obviously it brings a lot of unique capabilities—but you’re saying it’s situated within this spectrum of all these military technologies.
Gavin Hood: It is. But the question of automated warfare and robotic warfare… We haven’t even scratched the surface of where we’re going. I don’t know where we’ll be in 10 years. There may be no human beings doing anything and armed robots like a James Cameron movie. It’ll be the face recognition software and other algorithms designed to be less emotional than human beings in handling a policing situation.
So hopefully what our film does… There is considerable discussion in the abstract about drone warfare and the ethics. Here is a movie that I hope on some level demystifies. Here’s a Reaper drone, here’s what a Hellfire missile does. Here is its explosive force. Here is a little drone. We are being spied on, we are going to be invaded more and more by surveillance technology.
And here is an innocent bystander; I want you to get to know her. This is not a bug splat. If we’re going to take a human life, don’t imagine that just because you’re behind a screen, the effect of what you do isn’t playing out in reality for someone on the receiving end. And if you don’t consider what the overall effect in that person’s community is and you think it’s just about neutralizing one target, then you haven’t learned the lesson of Ferguson. The lesson of Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement is that it does matter if a single policeman takes a life in a racist or illegal manner. Because that life knows or knew other lives, and those lives know lives.
And so that comment [one character in the film] makes, which I think is funny, is that “Revolutions are fueled by postings on YouTube.” We’re back to strategy. I don’t care if that person was strangled, shot by a gun or hit by a Hellfire missile. You’d better tell me before you pull the trigger on any weapon that the effect of taking that life would be to reduce conflict, not escalate it. If it escalates it—as good as the weapon may be—it may be the wrong strategy.
Lovesick Cyborg: You talked about needing to understand the impact that a drone strike would have on this community on the ground. For a different project also focused on drone warfare, could you envision something that took more of the perspective of the people who are in the tribal areas of Pakistan and living under the constant drone threat, where the drones are like Terminators to them?
Gavin Hood: Do I wish more of that was in the movie? Probably. Do I think there’s a movie to be made about that? Absolutely. There’s a couple of drone movies. We don’t yet have sort of a genre. That movie needs to be made. What is the psychological effect of living under permanent armed surveillance? From a strategic point of view, from our point of view, those people don’t like us anymore. Therefore we’ve lost the hearts and minds and some people within that group are likely to become extreme. And so is the strategy working? Should we just back all these drones off?
Once again, the drone is a tactical weapon. It’s not a strategy. We’ve implemented it based on a strategy. “We want to watch you at all times.” Have you thought through that strategy? Is there going to be blowback? It’s horrifying to me that children in those areas are saying “A cloudy day is a good day, because then the drones don’t see us.” You think any of those people are going to be won over to our cause? I admit this movie does not go that far. Maybe it should.”
Lovesick Cyborg: Oh, I’m not saying it should have been that project. I was just curious.
Gavin Hood: But now that people have seen this movie and when you talk to them about a Reaper with a Hellfire missile over Pakistan, I guarantee to you that it’s less abstract. “Oh you mean that thing in “Eye in the Sky” that looks at people all the time? That’s what is flying over there?” One of the things that’s great about film is that they give us visual references.
The fact that [you and I are] even having the conversation about tribal Pakistan is precisely because this film gave us an opportunity for a conversation. And if that’s what it does, then it’s simply one piece of a puzzle that helps an ongoing conversation and maybe encourages someone else to go make that movie. Things build on each other. We certainly haven’t covered everything, mate.