Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell, a UK-based military officer in command of a top secret drone operation to capture terrorists in Kenya. Through remote surveillance and on-the-ground intel, Powell discovers the targets are planning a suicide bombing and the mission escalates from "capture" to "kill." But as American pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is about to engage, a nine-year old girl enters the kill zone triggering an international dispute, reaching the highest levels of US and British government, over the moral, political, and personal implications of modern warfare.
Actor/director Gavin Hood's 'Eye in the Sky' is another installment in the growing subgenre of action thrillers that feature drones (e.g., 'Zero Dark Thirty,' 'London Has Fallen'). Helen Mirren stars as Colonel Katherine Powell, a military officer who oversees a covert international drone operation inside a clandestine base somewhere in the UK. Powell coordinates a mission designed to capture three of the top individuals based in Nairobi, Kenya that are on the POTUS' East African terror watch list. Powell communicates with her supervisor, Lieutenant General Frank Benson (the recently departed Alan Rickman), who watches the operation remotely on big screens with a select group tasked with supplying judicial and government oversight.
Powell's subordinates make a Positive ID of Susan Danford (Lex King), a British national who is suspected of working with the militant group Al-Shabaab. The situation becomes dire when the suspects are seen donning vests containing internal explosive devices. After the mission changes from 'capture' to 'kill,' it becomes even more complicated when a nine-year-old girl comes into the picture selling bread in front of the suspects' hideout. This moral quandary is the heart of Hood's film. Should the US Air Force launch strikes before the suicide bombs go off in the middle of town or wait for the little girl to leave the area? These grave decisions about Collateral Damage Estimates (CDE) are discussed and debated ad nauseam by Powell, her team, and the panel of government officials.
'Eye in the Sky' explores a variety of ethical, legal, political, and military considerations that go into deciding whether or not to launch a major drone strike. Ironically, some of these aspects make up the film's biggest weakness. Hood and his screenwriter Guy Hibbert throw in too many scenes of white-collar bureaucrats passing the buck to another person in the chain of 'kill command.' The audience already has a very good sense of the major leaders involved in making such decisions because they are discussed amongst General Benson, UK Attorney General George Matherson (Richard McCabe), Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Brian Woodale (Jeremy Northam), and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State Angela Northam (Monica Dolan) in the COBRA room. The film crosscuts needlessly to other poltical and diplomatic figureheads from around the world so they can weigh in with their take. 'Eye in the Sky' belabors on this too much because it is made known earlier who has granted his/her approval for the mission. Additionally, Hood and Hibbert have already stated their point about the schism existing between military commanders who've witnessed war firsthand and the politicians who essentially know little to nothing about warfare. (There is a great exchange, however, between Benson and Angela Northam over this issue toward the end.) 'Eye in Sky' contains too many extra scenes about the chain of command that serve as unnecessary addendums, slowing the narrative down. Despite these flaws, the editing in 'Eye in the Sky' is mostly lean and economical. There is a complex vortex of issues and the film skillfully interweaves them.
Mirren delivers a typically strong and determined performance. Rickman is restrained and measured as the general, finding just the right notes. Aaron Paul gives a tender and sensitive performance as Lt. Steve Watts. The humanity of the Watts character shows as he cares very much about what will happen to the innocent girl if he fires on the hideout.
A small pleasure of seeing 'Eye in the Sky' is observing the dazzling sequence in which a Micro Aerial Vehicle (MAV) travels in the air and goes inside a secret hideout supposedly containing Danford. Kenyan intelligence operative Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi from 'Captain Phillips') pilots the MAV (which he calls 'the beetle') from his smartphone and it becomes increasingly suspensful for the viewer if any of the wanted terrorists will see or detect the miniature drone in the room. The audience also gains a keen sense of the movie's many surveillance motifs when a hummingbird spots Danford and her accomplices as they get in a vehicle. 'Eye in Sky' knows its subject very well.
Shot on the Red Epic, 'Eye in the Sky' is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1 on this AVC-encoded disc. This is a very pleasing transfer with few source flaws or print defects that I could spot. Outdoor scenes appear vivid and bright, although they look a bit oversharpened at times, particularly during the scenes set in Kenya. There also may be a trace of edge enhancement. Heavy DNR is not a problem, though, as it has been with other Universal releases. Contrast is very good in the darker lit scenes.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track boasts an extremely active soundfield. Vehicle noises, explosions, and other sound effects pack a wallop. The floor in my home theater shook. Sound is wonderfully spaced across all channels. There is also fantastic directionality for certain f/x in individual speakers. Paul Hepker and Mark Kilian's score fits the atmosphere of the film well. Dialogue is for the most part clear and audible but it is helpful to turn on the English SDH for some of the scenes in Powell's command center. For instance, some may think they hear her intel operatives utter 'Mom' or 'Mum' when speaking to her but it's actually 'Ma'am.' Also note that there is some Somali and/or Arabic dialogue spoken but English subtitles are burned into the print.
Universal's disc contains very few special features. The featurettes 'Perspectives' and 'Morals' are really only extended promotional trailers for the movie that run about one minute and twenty seconds apiece. We get to hear from star Helen Mirren, director Gavin Hood, and producer Colin Firth, but only in brief snippets.
The only other extras are 'Previews' that play after the disc loads: an original theatrical trailer for 'Desierto' as well as Universal home video adverts for 'Triple 9,' 'London Has Fallen,' 'Secret in Their Eyes' (the American remake), 'Mr. Robot,' and 'Steve Jobs.' The trailers are also accesible on the main menu.
'Eye in the Sky' is a very taut action thriller that should appeal to viewers who appreciate thoughtful and intelligent character dramas about modern warfare. Universal delivers a very nice digital transfer and a splendid lossless audio track. However, the studio could have made a more concerted effort to produce longer and substantial making-of-docs or featurettes. Recommended for the movie and stellar A/V quality.