About a third of the way into Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill—currently playing at the Siskel Film Center and the Wilmette Theater—comes the saddest love scene I’ve seen in a movie in some time. An icily controlled camera pans across the bodies of Tommy Egan (Ethan Hawke), an Air Force pilot now operating fighter drones from a base outside Las Vegas, and his homemaker wife (January Jones) as they dutifully couple in their darkened bedroom. Their body language is eerily regimented, suggesting a piece of heavy machinery in operation. It’s an obvious metaphor for how Egan feels dehumanized in his new job, though no less provocative for being obvious. Little of the public debate surrounding the ethics of drone warfare has addressed how it impacts the pilots who carry it out. Good Kill argues that the experience of killing people from several thousand miles away could drive a person insane—the love scene in question signals Egan’s sense of detachment from his own body and subsequent mental deterioration.
This isn’t the first time Niccol’s contemplated the negative effects of technology on individuals. His directorial debut Gattaca (1997), which also starred Hawke, takes place in a future in which people’s destinies are determined by genetic manipulation while they’re still in the womb. His screenplay for The Truman Show (1998) tells the story of a man who’s lived under constant surveillance for his entire life, his experience made into into a popular TV show without his knowledge. The last feature he made before Good Kill, the sci-fi allegory In Time (2011), imagines an alternate reality in which people have digital counters installed in their arms telling them how long they have to live. With these films, Niccol has suggested a pulpier, crowd-pleasing David Cronenberg, employing old-school sci-fi narratives to advance a Cronenbergian theme of human beings mutating into some frightening Other. One might describe Good Kill as Niccol’s Dead Ringers—the film in which he first explores this theme in a real-world setting.
The densely realized retro-futurist settings of Gattaca made that film a constant delight in spite of its occasional ponderousness. Drawing on 40s film noir in addition to Isaac Asimov, Niccol imagined how a postwar pulp writer might have imagined our current era of genetic engineering. Good Kill suggests how that same fictitious writer might have imagined drone warfare. Throughout the movie Niccol makes Egan’s life seem patently unreal. The pilot’s missions, carried out in front of a TV screen, not only look like video games—a lieutenant (Bruce Greenwood) explains in one of the opening scenes that the technology used for these missions was actually developed in conjunction with Xbox. In the evenings Egan goes home to a prefab suburban community that looks like something out of The Sims, and as he drives he can see giant models of world landmarks on the Las Vegas strip. It’s as though his entire life is a video game—when and how can he feel like a human being in this environment?
Egan’s existential conflict might sound trivial when its compared with the experience of people living under drone-fighter surveillance, and Good Kill acknowledges this too. “No one cares about us—they think we’re just sitting around playing video games,” says Greenwood’s cynical lieutenant, who editorializes on the action like a Bertolt Brecht character. (An unabashed mouthpiece for Niccol, he also gets all the movie’s good lines.) Because it’s assumed that pilots are free of psychological ills if not physically in a war zone (even though they’re still called upon to fire weapons that will kill random people, including civilians), Egan goes unmonitored despite showing signs of distress. Niccol generates no small amount of suspense as Egan struggles to behave naturally in his unnatural life, suggesting that the pilot could crack at any time under the pressure of his dehumanizing rituals. At times, the movie feels like a sci-fi variation on Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956), about an “average” schoolteacher struggling to maintain his all-American lifestyle as he goes mad. Niccol even quotes Life in a scene in which Hawke shatters a mirror in his bedroom, then studies his fractured reflection in the shards of glass. This image builds upon the tragic love scene from earlier in the film, presenting the hero’s bedroom as the place where he’s most conscious of his identity breakdown. The unnatural war has come home, rendering domestic life an unrecognizable facsimile of itself.