A Reaper In *Eye In The Sky*
Screenshot by author, from YouTube

Napoleonic battlefields were smoky, smoggy places, covered in the blackpowder clouds that were the by-product of musket volleys. Dubbed “fog of war,” the term persists in military circles–even after the literal fog itself was engineered away with smokeless powder–as a way to describe the uncertainty of what is happening in a battlefield. The first trailer for Eye In The Sky, a new film about drone warfare starring Helen Mirren and Aaron Paul, bypasses the fog of war and gives us instead a different moral quandary: What if we have perfect information about a battlefield, and still make the wrong choice?

The film, a British production directed by Gavin Hood (who also helmed Ender’s Game), focuses on a fictional counter-terror operation in Kenya. The operation is commanded by Helen Mirren’s Colonel Katherine Powell, who sets it up as a capture mission. Assisting her are American drone pilots (from the creatively named “Drone Ops Command” in Nevada), specifically the cautious Steve Watts, played by Breaking Bad alumni Aaron Paul. Alan Rickman is also there.

They are joined by an array of robots, including a camera drone disguised as a bird and one that is the size and shape of a tiny beetle. These are various stages of real, with bird drones further along than insect drones. (Hummingbird-sized tiny drone helicopters are much further along than both, with the British military already using them and American special forces testing them out.) Above them all in Eye In The Sky flies an MQ-9 Reaper at 22,000 feet, armed with just two hellfire missiles.

When the beetle drone reveals a bed covered in suicide bomb best parts, the drama changes from coordinating a capture to debating a drone strike. This is complicated further by the presence of a child playing within the missile’s blast radius. Such is the moral conflict presumably at the heart of the film: Even with perfect knowledge, is it worth killing one innocent person to save likely dozens of others?

It’s the military equivalent of the “trolley problem” frequently posed by philosophers: Given a trolley on a path to kill five people, the question asks, would you instead pull a lever that sends the trolley onto a different path, where it would kill a single person? It’s a question that the makers of driverless cars are wrestling with, and it’s likely one that military commanders struggle with regularly, especially in the targeted killing campaign. In real life, there is never perfect knowledge, so the characters in Eye In The Sky get to handle the debate with more information than any military has ever had in history.

Whether or not this question makes for a compelling film, or if the titular Eye goes from a camera to a killer remains to be seen. The film is set to premiere March 11th, 2016, so audiences can find out for themselves then. In the meantime, why not watch The Fog Of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara on Netflix, which is a masterwork in exploring the hubris of someone commanding a war, and the deep misgivings of decades spent wondering if they judged the situation wrong.

Watch the full trailer below:

Drones photo