I should have known. When a lady down in the front of my full theater pulled out her cell phone during the pre-show warning to turn off your cell phone in order to scroll through an email full of pictures with her husband, zooming in on each one and discussing it, and continued doing this into Eye in the Sky’s opening credits until I yelled for her to put her phone away, I should have known things were going to go badly. We’ve all had movies ruined by rude audience members, people who won’t put away their cell phones (or don’t know how to put them on silent), never stop talking, eat loud or foul-smelling food, kick your seat, etc. But far more rare is an experience where a movie is ruined because of the audience’s reaction to it, either because they simply did not get the movie’s intentions or because you had a very different emotional response than the people surrounding you in the dark. I endured just such an event while seeing Eye in the Sky, and it not only made it impossible to fully enjoy the film from that moment on but it also destroyed a good bit of my faith in humanity. I was disgusted.
I’ve had plenty of awful movie experiences throughout the years. I remember once as a kid watching Charlotte’s Web with my mom when the projectionist got the film reels out of order. I sat through the first 20 minutes of the remake of The Ladykillers with sound so bad that all of the dialogue was intelligible. I once had the lady sitting directly behind me scream as loud as humanly possible for a good 30 seconds when Leonardo DiCaprio was shot in the head at the end of The Departed. I saw Borat, the only movie I’ve ever considered walking out of, which made me so angry I still refuse to even talk about it. I’ve written before about how audiences don’t seem to understand how musicals work, and I’ve dealt with every sort of annoying moviegoer imaginable, from cell phone users to people talking to the screen to kids running up and down the aisle with light up shoes to crying children in R-rated movies and so on. I’ve even been in movie theaters with poor lighting, improper aspect ratios, malfunctioning curtains, bad sound, 3D that doesn’t work, broken seats, and even one with a torn screen. I’ve generally come to accept that no movie showing will ever be perfect, and I try my best not to let technical problems or audience rudeness ruin my enjoyment and appreciation of a film. I realize that people are often busy, distracted, and self-involved and that can often cause them to act without thinking of the way they’re affecting those around them. I get great pleasure from the idea of films as a shared emotional experience, and I generally let that aspect of movie-going help me tune out the more disruptive members of the audience.
But on a few occasions the audience’s reaction to a film has been far more distracting to me than any ringing phone or crying baby could ever be. I remember the first time I saw The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in the theaters, and I had a group of teenage boys sitting nearby. Early in the film Gollum has been captured by Sam and Frodo, who tie an Elvish rope around his neck and continue on their journey to Mount Doom with Gollum in tow. The rope burns Gollum’s throat, causing him to cry out in unbearable pain. He pleads for his life swearing to serve the master of the One Ring, and while Frodo wants to trust him Sam doesn’t believe anything he says. Sam threatens Gollum, charging at him. Gollum climbs a rock in fear and Sam violently yanks on the rope, dragging him down by the throat to land hard on the stone below. It’s a pitiful sequence showing a trapped, helpless creature fearing for his life being subjected to violence and pain, and the boys sitting nearby laughed like they were watching people pulling off stupid stunts and hurting themselves on Jackass. It’s one thing to feel no sympathy for Gollum, but quite another to take pleasure in the pain of a pitiful character. But beyond simply a lack of empathy, it showed me that these boys had no concept of how movies work and were making no effort to involve themselves in the storytelling before them. They were simply there to be entertained, more akin to spectators in a gladiatorial arena than patrons at the theatre.
I fully understand that people have different reactions to things, and there’s nothing inherently wrong about finding something funny in a scene that makes others cry. I’ve stifled a laugh in plenty of dramatic scenes through the years and listened plenty of other people cackle through my tears. Emotions are often unpredictable and uncontrollable, and there’s no shame in feeling an emotion that’s at odds with those around you. But the reaction of these boys was something more. We can’t control our emotional reactions, but we can and do control the attitude with which we approach a specific film and film in general. We all go into a film with a host of preconceptions, whether from trailers, reviews, word of mouth, or any of the various promotional aspects of the media circus that surrounds most films, but I try to let every film I watch stand on its own, to tell its own story in its own way. If you go into a film looking to find something (positive or negative) you’re liable to find it, so I try to go into a film looking to find whatever it is the filmmakers want me to find, to let them say what they want to say. This lets me feel like I’m getting my money’s worth from a film, that I’m seeing everything it has to offer, and it has allowed me to enjoy many movies over the years that people generally hate. But the truth is that lots of people go into movies expecting to see something specific. These boys clearly just wanted to see something that reinforced their idea of “entertainment,” probably something along the lines of “a bit of the old ultra-violence.” I don’t know what made me angrier, that they derived so much pleasure from this (admittedly fictional) character’s pain or that they had no interest in emotionally involving themselves in the story, which is after all the ultimate point of going to a film.
Still, it’s easy to dismiss the reaction of a group of teenage boys in the middle of one of the most popular movies of all time (or when a group of teenage boys called Tomorrowland the worst movie they’d ever seen). What happened during my recent screening of Eye in the Sky was similar in nature but altogether different, and requires a bit of plot setup in order to understand the film. Eye in the Sky tells the story of a fictional drone mission. The British government coordinating with US drone operators is tracking a group of US and British nationals who have joined a radical terrorist group in Kenya. At first the drone is just for surveillance in advance of a mission to capture these extremists, but the situation rapidly changes. They flee from an easily accessible safehouse to a closely guarded compound, making the capture mission impossible. Then, surveillance reveals that they’re planning an imminent suicide bombing, prepping their explosive vests under the watchful eye of hidden cameras. This changes the operation to a drone-based kill mission, with the situation complicated by the presence of a young girl selling bread just outside the terrorists’ wall who is surely within the blast radius.
Eye in the Sky is not an action film, it’s not an espionage film, and it’s not a military film. It’s an ethical film, intended to foster debate. This is clear given how straightforward the facts are in the film when compared to real life. In reality, the situation is always murky and nothing is ever known for sure, but in the film we know that these people are planning a terrorist bombing and that this little girl is likely to die if a strike is ordered. The appeal of the film lies in the debate, in the way the various levels of military and government involved in the mission consider different consequences from the decision whether to strike, and the very human reactions to the process from those involved with a vested interest in seeing a particular outcome. It’s a tense, dramatic film, with no clear correct answer, designed to make you think and question your assumptions. But that’s clearly not how some people in my theater saw it.
As the film progresses, various entities tasked with making the final call keep passing the buck. The military legal advisor wants to refer things to the UK Attorney General, who sees no true legal problem but defers to the political advisors in the room. They debate the situation and decline to make a decision, preferring to let the Foreign Secretary make the final call given the fact that they would be knowingly targeting UK and US citizens. The Foreign Secretary, however, has food poisoning at an arms conference and also declines, telling them to check with the US Secretary of State before any action is taken against a US national. The clock is ticking as the terrorists get ever closer to departing for their attack, and the military leaders of the mission have grown increasingly impatient with the political stalling going on. They finally manage to contact the Secretary of State, who is in the middle of a ping pong event in China, and in contrast to every previous reaction he responds with frustration, wondering why they even called him about something like this when they should have just acted, telling them that as long as they do their due diligence on collateral damage it’s worth whatever price they have to pay in order to take down these dangerous terrorists at the top of the most wanted list.
At this point, the audience broke out in cheers, and my insides turned to stone. Several people clapped loudly, others called out in celebration, and the lady with the cell phone from earlier raised her arms in triumph. Their feelings were clear: at last there’s an end to this bureaucratic bullshit and the terrorists can finally be blown to bits. It’s a feeling shared by the film’s main character, Helen Mirren’s Colonel who is in charge of the mission, but it’s a feeling that completely misses not only the point of the film but the larger issues that are part of the drone warfare debate. It’s one thing to believe that it’s worth any sacrifice in order to stop terrorism, and that’s a debate worth having, but it’s quite another to celebrate in the imminent prospect of killing innocent people, even in the name of saving lives in the future. To these people, they weren’t watching a film meant to foster debate, they were watching the equivalent of action movie without any action. They had no interest in ethics, morality, or the complex issues involved, they only wanted to see the bad guys get killed so the good guys can win. It was a relief to them to finally have someone authoritative put an end to the uncomfortable debates in order to take action, to hell with the consequences that need to be considered. These people had no interest in the movie that was on the screen before them, but had instead twisted it in their minds to suit what they wanted to see.
I was and still am furious, both because of the lack of respect for a very real, very important issue with which we all should be concerned, but also with how easily people will willfully ignore what they’re being told in order to find what they want to see. This is a universal truth, of course, that people can be presented with proof of something and will choose not to believe it, but to see it play out in such a way with regards to film was a bit shocking. To make matters worse, this wasn’t a group of dumb teenage boys but instead men and women in their 60s and 70s from well-off retirement communities. These are people who should know better, who should appreciate complexity and nuance, and should be looking for more than instant gratification and easy answers. Eye in the Sky is a complex movie that presents a wide variety of viewpoints and handles its central issue with depth and emotion, yet these people reduced it to a propaganda piece where good guys win and bad guys lose. I can only imagine that when a woman from the US government called in later (uninvited) in order to clarify that America has a points system for deciding on missions, which reduces civilian casualties and potential targets to numbers in an equation without any shred of humanity attached to their value, that those audience members who cheered earlier nodded to themselves in agreement, thinking that death from above should and can be solved with simple arithmetic. Or that Helen Mirren’s character was justified later in ordering her subordinate to deliberately alter the causality projections in order to pacify those still opposed to the strike.
Did my political views deepen my disgust in the audience’s reaction? Of course it did. I’m just has human as the next person, and my feelings on the ethics of drone warfare certainly played a part in my reaction to their callous cheering. But what really upset me was not their assumed political views, which many around me share, but the way they willfully ignored the movie’s message in order to craft their own, completely destroying the very purpose of film. While movies are meant for entertainment, and our reactions to them are in many ways a reflection of ourselves, they’re so much more than that. Like all storytelling, they’re an opportunity for us to see things from a viewpoint outside of our own, to walk in another man’s shoes, as it were. They’re more than just a collection of images, a series of plot points to be laid out and interpreted as we see fit, they’re an expression of the storytellers behind a film. When done correctly a film has a unique vision, with a message and a viewpoint it wants to get across even if that message, in the case of Eye in the Sky, is simply for us to appreciate the complexity and to engage in the issues. It’s so easy to tune out to the world, to only accept things that reinforce what we already believe, but stories are a way to expand our horizons and to teach us things we might otherwise never learn. It’s infuriating for me to see people completely disregard the very purpose of a pursuit that means so much to me. I’ve seen so many examples of people who love a particular work of art but who have completely missed the point, and it’s tough to be reminded that that is far more commonplace than I would like to believe. When movies are reduced to mere entertainment, then they become nothing more than light and sound without meaning. In the end movies can only show us what we’re willing to let them, and if we’re closed off to the experience of film then it’s not too big a step to closing us off to the people around us.