Life in the kill box: 'Eye in the Sky' targets the ethics of drone strikes

Director Gavin Hood talks to CNET about kill chains, drone police and how the US government has "ripped up" the Geneva Convention.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
6 min read

You might think of drones as friendly things, like the DJI Phantom you fly yourself or the Amazon drones that could soon be delivering your groceries.

Think again when it comes to military drones. An MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle with a 66-foot wingspan can loiter 50,000 feet above the Earth for a day at a time, poised to hit a target with a devastating 3,800 pounds of Hellfire missile payload.

But as with all weapons, the awesome firepower of a drone needs to be aimed accurately.

"It's less about technology than about strategy, about the way it's deployed," said Gavin Hood, director of the 2016 drone drama "Eye in the Sky," out now on DVD and Blu-ray. "Drones are new but still a weapon of warfare. It doesn't matter if it's a drone or a sniper rifle, the question is: 'Did we kill the right guy?'"

"Eye in the Sky" dramatizes that question, depicting a situation when intelligence isn't perfect, the law is unclear, and the ethics even less clear.

"We've had a very solid legal framework for the conduct of warfare since World War II, the Geneva Convention," said Hood. "The US was a leader in defining that legal framework, but then ripped it up -- it was ripped up and shredded under the Bush administration. The legal framework that Obama has been using is far from clear."

As US President Barack Obama prepares to hand over the reins to a new commander-in-chief, the lack of transparency around drones becomes more pressing. "Politicians need to get their act together," said Hood.

Drone dilemma

Hood, whose 2005 film "Tsotsi" won the Oscar for best foreign-language film, came to "Eye in the Sky" after directing "Ender's Game." Although that future-set sci-fi adventure might look different from the taut contemporary drama of "Eye in the Sky," they're thematically similar. Both films deal with technology in warfare and the morality of using that tech, as well as the effect on the people using it.

Hood was drawn to "Eye in the Sky" by Guy Hibbert's screenplay, which he described as a "page-turner."

Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman lead the cast as British top brass coordinating a drone mission in the sky over Nairobi, Kenya. Events play out in near real time, pinging around the world from operations rooms in Britain to a drone base in Nevada to a government minister's laptop in Singapore. The buck is passed along the "kill chain" of decision-makers as the clock ticks down on a simple yet impossible moral dilemma: Should we kill a child to stop a terrorist?

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Gavin Hood directs Helen Mirren in "Eye in the Sky."

The film's setting illustrates that real-life drones are deployed not just on conventional battlefields, but in countries such as Yemen and Somalia where the US and UK are not officially at war. A whole new set of issues arise when intelligence bodies such as the CIA use military weapons to target individuals outside of war zones.

"Where is the battlefield?" said Hood. "Does a battlefield exist as what they call a kill box?"

A conventional battlefield is a place where clearly defined military units go at each other, but a "kill box" can be any designated space, simply because of the presence of a target.

In other words, you don't kill the people who are on the battlefield, you bring the battlefield to the person you want to kill.

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"Eye in the Sky" brought the final performance by the late actor Alan Rickman.

Keith Bernstein

"Should the battlefield attach to [a suspected terrorist] wherever he goes?" said Hood. "If he goes to London, can we use Hellfire missiles in London?"

When governments launch strikes against civilian areas, it becomes that much more important to have solid, trustworthy intelligence. But even a drone's high-resolution images of an area or an individual can't provide absolute certainty.

"There are many who argue drones are more accurate because we have a camera looking down," said Hood. "The military might argue we have total situation awareness. We don't. We have improved situational awareness, but we still need intelligence."

Hood pointed out that more than once, drone strikes have killed women and children gathered for a wedding. "We are seeing some of the picture, but we are still not seeing all of the picture."

To fill in that perspective, the film shows the characters also using tiny microdrones disguised as a bird or an insect to fly right into the terrorist's house. These tiny drones may seem like science fiction, but they're based on real devices like the Hummingbird and Black Hornet drones.

The film dramatizes the moment that a drone pilot (played by "Breaking Bad" star Aaron Paul) calls for clarification of the potential damage from a strike, something Hood said is based in reality.

"They have to know they're not committing a war crime," he explained.

Despite being thousands of miles removed from the death and devastation, Hood said, drone controllers are "under more stress than fighter pilots because they're expected to stay and record images of the destruction."

Hood noted that the military avoids the word "drone" in favor of "remotely piloted aircraft."

"In their mind, there's still a human being involved," he said, referring to the pilots with their hands on the joystick. "But which human being? What kind of person is behind the trigger? Is that person stable?"

Hood described the ethical issues surrounding drone use as standing at a "strange intersection of warfare and policing."

It could get stranger still if we move to fully autonomous weapons, dropping the human operator from the equation. Hood tied that still-hypothetical scenario to the very real and current controversy over police shootings, wondering if drones could take on the work of policing as well as fighting wars.

"In the world of robotic policing there are those who argue robots with high level of artificial intelligence can be programmed to police a crowd with less chance of an emotional response....Maybe a robot is less volatile."

If a robot is less likely than a human to panic or to bring its own prejudices to bear, it still operates on instructions given by humans. What should those instructions be? Should a drone fire on an individual or crowd if property is damaged? Or only if human life is under threat? Hood relates this to dilemmas posed by autonomous vehicles. As self-driving cars hit our roads, ethical situations like the trolley problem -- which asks how you would choose between potential victims of a runaway trolley -- become very real concerns.

As seen in the film, drones offer such a range and destructive force that even when the people behind them feel justified, the use of the weapon could be counterproductive.

"The real goal from the Western point of view," Hood said, "is to reduce the amount of extremist ideological activity of whatever kind in the world. With any weapon, we have to ask not how great is this weapon, but to what extent does this weapon reduce or aggravate extremism?"

So when asked if he believes drones are a good thing, Hood can offer no single answer. "Would I advocate the use of drones in Iraq against ISIL? Absolutely. You have a camera, you can tell ground troops what's going on."

But he's not convinced that use of drones in tribal Pakistan has furthered the goal of reducing extremism. "I am not Obama, I don't have the intelligence he has," Hood said. "But my gut tells me, in the time I've been following this closely, we have far more people with anti-American and anti-Western feelings over that area of the world."

Gavin Hood's drone reading list

To learn more about the ethics and technology of drone strikes, the "Eye in the Sky" director recommends these books:

  • "Drone Theory" (Grégoire Chamayou) A great book about the ethics of drones.
  • "Kill Chain" (Andrew Cockburn) An excellent book on the history and rise of high-tech weapons of war and remote assassination.
  • "Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century" (P.W. Singer) Essential reading for tech-minded folks.
  • "The Future of Violence: Robots and Germs, Hackers and Drones" (Benjamin Wittes and Gabriella Blum) A tech geeks dream/nightmare.
  • "Drone: Remote Control Warfare" (Hugh Gusterson) A good read on the history and morality of remote warfare.