Eye in the Sky hits its target on Blu-ray, with a solid technical delivery of this simple yet pungent thriller.
The Production: 3.5/5
“The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.”
-Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) in Game of Thrones
It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. You take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.
-William Munny (Clint Eastwood) in Unforgiven
Eye in the Sky is a deceptively simple thriller. The plot itself is a single action that attempts to complete itself over the course of under two hours of our time: Multinational forces use drone technology to locate a terrorist cell in Kenya and then run into a serious dilemma when it becomes clear that the terrorists are preparing a suicide bombing. Without spoiling the particulars here, we can at least all be aware that the immediate situation is seen from three different vantage points for much of the film. There’s British Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) leading the mission from Northwood Headquarters outside London. There’s the local Kenyan ground team, led by Kenyan surveillance expert Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi, who viewers may remember from 2013’s Captain Phillips). And there’s the American drone team, which has pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) operating the title device on remote from just outside Las Vegas. Watts and the Americans provide the “Eye in the Sky”, a drone aircraft flying extremely high above Kenya. Farah and another field agent provide close range surveillance with various small drone digital video feeds. The images from the drones are then relayed back to Powell, who is faced with a need to change their mission from a surveillance and capture setup to something deadlier. She has that ability, since the American drone is armed with missiles that can hit the building where the terrorists are sitting. But that doesn’t mean that she can simply order the strike – that requires a far more complicated series of maneuvers. In a nutshell, that simple equation describes the whole story of the movie (again without spoiling the details of how it develops). Those who wish to simply watch the film to learn the rest should skip the next paragraph or two, and just know that the movie is quite effective in its delivery of this premise. This summary makes it sound simple – the actual movie is nerve-wracking to watch and ultimately more affecting than one would think at first glance here.
SPOILERS: Where the situation hits its snags is in the need for Powell’s chain of command to approve her choice to order a missile strike. She can’t give that order on her own. So she has to go up the chain to Lt. General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman, in his final on-screen role), who is sitting in a conference room in London with other higher-ups, none of whom want to be the one to approve Benson or Powell on their own. So up we go to the next person in the chain – the British Foreign Secretary (Iain Glen). Except that he doesn’t want the responsibility either, so he passes it on the American Secretary of State. And on and on we go. And while all this back and forth is happening, we’re shown further images of the terrorists preparing their suicide vests, meaning that the level of urgency is rising, even if the talking heads are unable to make a decision on what they should do. Their dilemma has to do with what will happen when the drone blows up the building, which is in the middle of a civilian town with plenty of innocent people likely to be injured or killed by the explosion. This is personified by the little Kenyan girl who lives in a house next to the one being targeted. She is seen trying to sell the family’s bread at a table literally right outside the property that will be hit. The final judgment from the higher-ups is to proceed, but to make sure there are as little collateral damage as possible – meaning that they want to minimize the headlines and photos showing all the dead civilians afterward. And this debate goes on several levels. There’s the issue of needing to take out the bombers before they can blow up even more people. There’s also the issue of whether it is justifiable to allow some civilians around this house to be killed, given that the suicide bombers will certainly kill many other people if they complete their mission. (Which leads to the moral question of who gets to make that call – who decides that one life is more important than another?) And there’s the inevitable political ramification – if the bombers succeed, then they kill a lot of people and terrorize thousands more. If the drone strike kills the bombers but also kills civilians, doesn’t that make the terrorists’ case for them and thus recruit more people to become suicide bombers? Which is the worse PR battle to face – justifying the drone attack that kills civilians, or justifying inaction that will definitely need to many other civilians dying?
MORE SPOILERS: The final third of the movie is where the real dilemma hits. The strike force has the ability to act, but that little girl is absolutely in the middle of the danger zone. The movie rakes the characters and the audience over the coals with repeated shots of the girl obliviously trying to sell bread in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time. Watts refuses to fire the missile until he can be assured that the probability is low that the little girl will be killed. But the actual assessment at Northwood is that she’s most likely to be killed. So Powell tells her assessor to give her a lower number – she knows the little girl and others will not survive, but she wants to make sure Watts will fire the weapon. And the assessor does as ordered, and artificially changes his projection. Once all these hurdles have been cleared, the actual firing of the missile is almost instantaneous. (This is typical from my experience in dealing with military operations – the decision making process may go on forever but once they take action, it happens in an instant.) And after two missiles are fired into that building, the bombers are themselves destroyed, as is a fair amount of the town block where the house stood. (Even in a targeted strike, the explosion doesn’t just stay in the building, as we see happening here) So one would view the mission as a success for everyone, right? Everyone, that is, except the little girl and her parents, which is the image this movie leaves us at the end. The viewer is left with the question still hanging in the air – is it morally defensible that innocent children should die in the name of fighting terrorism? Put more simply – what happens to our humanity when we make such a decision?
SPOILERS NOW DONE. IT’S SAFE TO READ FROM HERE FORWARD: The strength of this film is that it takes the simple premise and wrings a surprising amount of tension out of it. There’s the story tension, as we wait to see how the characters will work through the situation. But there’s also the moral and ethical tension lying just below the surface. I would argue that this film is less about the plot (which is simple) or about character than it is about theme. In that way, it’s quite similar to the magnificent 2013 film Gravity. As with the 2013 film, this one presents a thematic question to the audience. It presents a potential answer in the form of the story, but the question is what is important. That said, I commend the direction of Gavin Hood here, marshalling the disparate elements together during a challenging shoot in South Africa in 2014. (I don’t envy him trying to find places in South Africa to represent all the locales of this movie, but they pulled it off nicely.) There are also some solid performances here, including the always dependable Helen Mirren and Aaron Paul. And this movie gives us a final on-screen performance from Alan Rickman, who passed away early this year. On a level of quality and effectiveness, Eye in the Sky is an easy movie to Recommend, and I do hope more people will see it.
Eye in the Sky was released on Blu-ray on June 28th. The packaging includes Blu-ray and SD DVD editions of the movie with both discs containing the same special features and the Blu-ray containing the reference quality picture and sound. Instructions for downloading a digital copy of the movie are included on an insert in the packaging.
3D Rating: NA
Eye in the Sky is presented in a 2.40:1 1080p AVC transfer (avg 35 mbps) that looks great, even in the obvious CGI sequences with the drone aircraft way up in the sky. The transfer shows off a generous range of location detail and skin tones, given the mixture of international cast here. I note that this is an example of shooting a lower budget movie in South Africa but still getting an excellent technical result.
Eye in the Sky is presented in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (avg 3.4 mbps, going up to 4.9 mbps for the bigger moments). It’s a solid mix, including music and some atmospheric sound in the surround channels. The subwoofer kicks in as needed for music and for the heavier moments.
Special Features: 0.5/5
The Blu-ray of Eye in the Sky comes barely any special features – just two tiny featurettes that total out to less than 3 minutes between them.. The DVD edition includes the same bonus material in standard definition. Both editions contain previews for other releases – the difference being that the Blu-ray uses online previews while the DVD has them on the actual disc.
Perspectives (1:22, 1080p) (AVAILABLE BOTH ON BLU-RAY AND DVD) – This very short featurette shows off a few clips from the movie and includes a few quick soundbites from the filmmakers. This is frankly too short to glean anything.
Morals (1:31, 1080p) (AVAILABLE BOTH ON BLU-RAY AND DVD) – This short featurette does about the same thing as the first one, albeit running ten seconds longer. Why they split them in two is a mystery, and why no other special features were made available here is an even bigger mystery. It does seem to be a continuing pattern with Bleecker Street that they’re not big on special features. Granted that, why include two quickie featurettes that are over practically before they begin?
DVD Edition – An SD DVD of the movie is included in the packaging, containing the movie in an anamorphic 2.40:1 transfer and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound in English (@448 kbps). The DVD also holds the same two short featurettes as the Blu-ray.
Digital and Ultraviolet Copies – Instructions for obtaining digital and Ultraviolet copies of the movie are available on an insert in the packaging.
The film and special features are subtitled in English and Spanish. The usual pop-up menu is present, along with a complete chapter menu.
Eye in the Sky is a surprisingly effective thriller for such a simple premise. Watching it is a truly nerve-wracking experience, helped along by some sure-handed direction and solid performances from Helen Mirren and Aaron Paul. And this is our final chance to see Alan Rickman on camera. The Blu-ray presents the movie in solid high-definition, albeit without practically any special features. But the attraction here is the movie itself, and on its strength, this is an easy Blu-ray to Recommend for Purchase.