Drones is a solid little war thriller that manages to engage despite its restrictions. Rick Rosenthal’s 21st Century war film stars Eloise Mumford and Matt O’Leary as members of the US air force charged with controlling drone strikes over Afghanistan.
Rosenthal’s thriller plays out in real time as our characters go from ambivalence to fear as the reality of their task becomes clear. It’s a morality play that shows how detached the military has become in warfare. This is illustrated when one of the characters is shown playing a drone attack video game before turning attention to ‘work’. This video game mentality has changed how we think of war, making it more palatable for those having to pull the trigger without having to really worry about the consequences.
This two-hander essentially takes place in one room and Rosenthal builds some interesting tension by keeping things up-close and personal. Mumford and O’Leary have nowhere to hide and this brings out the strengths and weaknesses in their performances. The pair do what is asked of them but they’re more suited to the lighter moments than the dramatic scenes. Drone warfare is akin to watching somebody else play a video game (let’s be honest this was never going to be Top Gun) but at least Rosenthal attempts to add a touch of excitement to proceedings when the tension lags with too much back-story.
Tight editing helps move the pace along as the clock ticks down to the finale but the film lacks visual flair. An unnecessary intro acts a touch of scope; however this feels unnecessary when we cut to the control room where the majority of the action takes place. Rosenthal should have had the courage to let it all play out in one location without feeling the need to give lip service to cinematic conventions. Tackling the material like a stage play would have made it feel weightier and even more claustrophobic.
Drones raises some interesting (if simplified) questions about modern warfare. It may not have the weight or scope to make it truly essential but it’s a decent low budget thriller that aspires to something different. It will never be the definitive film about drone warfare (will there ever be one?) but at least there’s originality on display.