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I have recently seen a movie that, for my money, is more intense, suspenseful and edge of your seat than Mad Max: Fury Road, Furious 7, The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Tomorrowland put together.
But it’s also a much smaller film than any of those; smaller in budget, in size, in CGI.
It’s more than all of those adverbs, I suspect, because it is about a real person put into a real situation, a situation of profound psychological and moral conflict. In the above movies, all the characters had to worry about was the end of their existence.
In the movie I am referring to, Good Kill, our central character has something far greater at stake: the end of his soul.
The basic story line revolves around one Major Thomas Egan, just about the best drone pilot there is. And his job, day in, day out, is to locate the bad guys in the Middle East and blow them up from thousands of miles away. His bliss is basically the same as Chris Kyle in American Sniper, but he gets to do it from the comfort of a chair in an air conditioned unit on a base in Nevada, not far from the R&R resort of Las Vegas.
One would think that this should make the whole situation less of a problem. And, yes, in many ways it does. I don’t want to compare the two and say that Egan has it worse than Kyle, because he doesn’t.
But that, in many ways, is one of the issues. He knows he has it much easier that someone fighting on the battlefield. He’d much rather be a fighter pilot like he once was. There is something more real, more human, more…moral when he is flying and his life is also in danger as are those whose lives he is supposed to take.
He feels like he’s cheating in a way. That it’s not right. He can’t really put a finger on it. But there just seems like there’s something wrong with it.
But he has a wife and two children and a nice home where he can barbeque on the weekends and he has friends and the perfect suburban life. So he accepts what is, though something is gnawing at him.
Then two things happen. First, he and his fellow drone pilots get a new recruit, Airman Vera Suarez, a real up and comer. But she also has questions about the right and wrong of what they are doing.
And then the CIA gets involved. A disembodied voice given the name of Langley is now telling them who they are to blow up. And not only are they now instructed to blow up the terrorists, but they are ordered to blow up the terrorists’ wives and children; to blow up people who come to clear bodies from a building that Egan has bombed; to blow up a funeral of someone they had previously blown up.
And with that, the disembodied voice smoothly and calmly, like the snake on the tree in the Garden of Eden, begins eroding all moral quandaries they may have.
And with this, the ethics hit the fan. This is not what Egan and Suarez signed up for. But they are soldiers and this is what they have to do…or do they?
The movie is filled with moral and intellectual arguments on both sides as everyone rationalizes their case as to the morality of what they are doing. And you know what? One of the brilliant aspects of the screenplay is that those arguments on the side of blowing up everybody that Langley tells them to? They are pretty damn compelling.
In fact, I’m not sure I could argue against them and say they were wrong. And neither could Egan. And neither could Suarez.
But somehow I knew, and Egan and Suarez knew, that no matter that the winning arguments are on the other side, they are still morally wrong. They just are. Whether a rational argument can be made against them or not, they are just wrong.
The basic through line of the movie is watching Egan slowly but surely lose it, going from a regular guy who basically has it together to someone coming closer and closer to having a severe mental breakdown. He starts drinking heavily, becomes violent, paranoid.
The structure is very reminiscent of the classic World War II movie, Twelve O’Clock High, in which a general takes over a bomber crew with low morale due to the stress of daylight bombing over Germany. The conflict is not so much moral here. No one questions the right and wrong of bombing the enemy. The conflict is one of not just going out day after day not knowing if one is going to return, as well as the guilt the general feels in sending out these young men day after day to what may be their death.
In the same way as Egan, Gregory Peck’s Frank Savage also finds the situation more and more difficult to handle until he suffers a sudden paralyses and is unable to psychologically allow himself to get onto a plane.
Egan reaches the same point where he will either break down or alter his situation. And it’s a deeply moving and powerful set of scenes.
The movie is powerfully written and solidly directed by Andrew Niccol. This is a more down to earth film than is usual for Niccol known as he is for his work on Gattaca, The Truman Show, In Time and The Host.
The story is performed by a strong and able cast. Egan is played by Ethan Hawke (who also appeared in the earlier Gattaca); January Jones is the they also serve who sit and wait wife; Zoȅ Kravitz is Suarez; Bruce Greenwood, who has been doing rather well lately at playing father figures, is Egan’s commanding officer; and Peter Coyote provides the lounge lizard voice for Langley.
One of the finer films of the year so far.
In Atlas Shrugged, the virtue of selfishness author Ayn Rand takes of a group of titans, the movers and shakers of the world, and has them throw a tantrum and go off into self-imposed exile because the world won’t appreciate them enough and let them do whatever they want to do. And there they wait for the world to break down until they reach a point where they’ll beg these group of supermen to come back.
In Tomorrowland, the new fantasy/sci-fi end of the world based upon a ride at Disneyland film written by Jeff Jensen, Damon Lindelof and director Brad Bird, the great and brilliant also go away to a distant land—but they do so with the express purpose of giving freely and unselfishly of their visions and creations in order to better the world.
So, though I’m not sure it was the filmmakers’ intention, Tomorrowland, a family film aimed at teens, is, in many ways, the anti-Atlas Shrugged.
Ms. Rand must be turning over in her grave.
There is much to like about Tomorrowland. It’s one of the few movies with an apocalyptic subject matter that is unremittingly Pollyannish. And that optimism is often quite captivating.
And it has a lot of charm. Charm out the whazoo. More charm that can be found in all the boxes of that lucky cereal.
And overall, it’s rather well written with an often clever plot with just the right amount of not taking itself seriously while pushing the lump in the throat aspect of it as well.
It’s certainly not perfect. The main issue is that it takes a while to really get going. It begins with a Mad Men style opening of a visit to the 1964 New York World’s Fair by a young boy with a vision who is given a glimpse of the future. It’s a nice bit of a prolog that gets you in the right mood.
After that, it slows a bit as the story revolves around Casey, a young woman who has a genius for electronics. There’s some early stuff here about her doing some not so legal stuff to make sure her dad can keep his job at NASA that ends up with her being arrested. And then she discovers a button left her by Athena, a young teen with an English accent first glimpsed in the prolog, a button that when Casey touches it, it zaps her into the future, though she is physically in the present as well.
Got all that?
There is some fun stuff here, but it must be said that the filmmakers don’t play by their own rules in these early scenes. The way everything is set up, when Casey touches the button, she can go forward in the future until she runs into something in the present day. But by this token, she should be above ground when she uses the button while she is in her second floor bedroom, or she shouldn’t end up falling down stairs.
This leads to a marvelously directed, designed and CGI’d glimpse into the future (something that turns out to be a commercial). It’s actually pretty wonderful, but I was sort of distracted because Casey kept forgetting or ignoring the fact that she could run into something at any moment (like a train, something that happens to a character in the Daphne du Maurier time travel novel The House on the Strand).
At any rate, this is a nice scene, but then we’re back to her everyday life and things kind of slow again until she takes a bus to a collectibles shop in Houston to find out about this button that’s been slipped her. At which point things really pick up again as she starts running into robots, Athena redux, and most important of all, and not just for her character, but for the movie as a whole, George Clooney, as Frank Walker, the grown up version of the boy in the prolog.
Because once Clooney appears, then the story and all its cleverness really kicks in, kicks in on steroids, as does Clooney’s charm. And let me tell you, cleverness and Clooney charm is a deadly combination.
We are then eventually whisked into the future where Tomorrowland, once a beautiful city of great hope, is now a city that made a terrible discovery. Now, I have to say that I didn’t, as in many movies like this, completely understand what this discovery was, but what it did was allow Tomorrowland, which is in a different dimension, to warn Earth that the apocalypse was coming.
But instead of taking the warming and doing something about it, Earth and its people became overwhelmed by it and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. So by providing Earth with a chance to fix itself, it actually doomed it.
And, Nix, the head of Tomorrowland, is perfectly willing to accept that (after all, it won’t affect him or his world). He even thinks Earth is pretty much getting what it deserves. So can Casey, Athena and Clooney, uh, sorry, Frank, stop the apocalypse and in so doing save both Earth and Tomorrowland?
Along the way we get robots who smile just a bit too much while wearing black turtle necks and suits; an amazing sequence in which the Eiffel Tower turns into a spaceship; a normal looking farm house being the site of a battle against killer bots; a very funny animatronic automaton (or whatever the hell it was called); and one of the oddest scenes in recent movie history—the more than middle aged Frank having a lover’s spat with the pre-teen Athena who betrayed him years earlier when he was exiled from Tomorrowland—I mean, I didn’t know whether to feel creeped out, or laugh at the outrageousness of it all and be amazed that Clooney et al. actually pulled the damn stunt off.
Though one of the issues is that the movie is more than a bit in love with its own cleverness (such as the very long scene of Tomorrowland early on when Casey uses the button), the art direction and production design is pretty astounding. This is especially true of the costume designs by Jeffrey Kurland (it’s one of the few futuristic movies where I thought, yeah, that really feels like clothes people would actually wear).
The dialog and plot are often bright and snappy and witty. Bird has worked on The Simpsons, Ratatouille and The Incredibles. He’s ably supported by Lindelof (Lost and World War Z) and Jenson (it’s his first movie and he helped with the story).
The cast is made up of Britt Robertson as Casey; Hugh Laurie, sneery as House, M.D. as Nix; The English accented Raffey Cassidy as Athena; Tim McGraw as Casey’s father; Kathryn Hahn and Keegan-Michael Key as the collectible store owners; Matthew MacCaull as a robot with a great fake smile; and that little ragamuffin of a scene stealer, Pierce Gagnon as Casey’s little brother.
And George Clooney, of course.