WITCHCRAFT OF DRONES: INSIDE ANDREW NICCOL’S GOOD
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.