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Vol. 14, No. 3, 2015
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Robert J. Lewis
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When We Leave
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A Separation
Take This Waltz
Beyond The Walls
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The Past
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

andrew niccol’s

reviewed by




“War is a first person shooter” states Lt. Col. Johns (Bruce Greenwood) in one of his many diatribes in Andrew Niccol’s atypical war film Good Kill. Niccol casts Ethan Hawke, star of the director’s eerie 1997 film Gattaca, as Major Tommy Egan, a veteran pilot with thousands of hours flight time and several combat tours in the Middle East. Political reality and changing military tactics have grounded Egan and relegated him to flying UAVs -- Unmanned Aerial Drones -- from Nellis Air Force base outside of Las Vegas.

In what appears like a forgotten corner of the base, drone crews work inside a row of high tech steel boxes in apparent isolation. The 24 hour operation cycle blurs day and night. Inside the control boxes, the USA ceases to exist as the crews virtually travel to all corners of the globe. Then, strangely, like any other workers, they open the armoured doors, and go home to wives, children, marital problems and barbecues.

It is darkly portentous that one of the nerve canters of the American drone program should be located in a city so singularly emblematic of western decadence. Even more surreal is the fact that this virtual conflict is largely controlled from a city at whose core lies the idea of virtual space and virtual experience.

The film is most compelling in its portrayal of the psychological effects of virtual warfare and how the compression of space and time between battlefield and home goes beyond ordinary post-traumatic stress. The many speeches and monologues of Egan’s boss, Johns, clearly show a profound unease with drone program. At one point he urges Egan to “keep compartmentalizing;” this seems to be the only tool on hand to control the damage. The sign posted on the container door reading “You are now leaving the United States of America” is another, attempting to delineate that which has been conflated by technology.

This is but one of the film’s many examples that point to an awareness of the academic debate surrounding drone warfare. In a recent Duke University Press publication, Virtual War and Magical Death: Technologies and Imaginaries of Terror and Killing (edited by renowned sociologists Neil L. Whitehead and Svenker Finnström), the book’s authors examine the parallels between occult systems of remote killing and drone technology, often concluding that the psychological effects on local populations are nearly identical. Whether voodoo or drones, the belief that something unseen and uncontrollable can lash out and kill resonates, in each case as terror. Moreover, this fear of the potential for a certain death explodes the difference between the imaginary and reality in its impact on the human mind and wider society.

Good Kill focuses on the impact of wielding this terrible power. In Virtual War and Magical Death, the editors point out that occult systems of remote killing are almost always grounded in highly specialist and controlled practices requiring indoctrination, preparation and also separation from the community. However, while shamans undergo lifetimes of preparation and training to be able to control and survive their own abilities, the drone crews seem comparatively unprepared -- as Egan’s co-pilot, Airman Suarez (Zöe Kravitz) poignantly quips: “I didn’t sign up for this shit.” Moreover, while practitioners of occult systems are seen as intrinsic parts of the power they wield, western systems of thought indoctrinate practitioners to view themselves as mere operators ex machina.

As with occult practices, where we find power in words and symbols, the same can be found in the virtual world of drone warfare, in the specific protocols and jargon of the control room. The sign on the container door, warning of a shift in time-space, also acts symbolically as a talisman, reminding the practitioner to keep “compartmentalizing.”

The highly evolved optical and satellite technologies furthermore exponentially increase the potential for trauma -- which has been documented to include insanity and suicide in ethnographic studies. Drone crews virtually experience every minute detail of their actions in real time. Distance thereby ceases to exist and practitioners of this 21st century ‘magic’ are forced into the same time and space as their victims, mirroring the others’ terror back onto themselves. Full of this terror they face the danger of becoming stuck in both, the virtual reality of war and the surreality of an ordinary life in the other side of a metal door.

Good Kill does not proselytize, nor does it take a clear stance against the ever increasing deployment of these technologies. Perhaps this will be seen as a major weakness. However, through the lens of recent scholarship, the film draws a more profound parallel between magic and technology. Virtual War and Magical Death demonstrates that remote killing is nothing new nor are its sociological and psychological impacts. Good Kill shows that modern technology is recreating and, in some ways, amplifying the same old kinds of trauma. Worse, that in fighting a 'war on' terror, 21st century gadgetry has instead created anew a 'war of' terror on an unprecedented scale.



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