AFI FEST 2013 Review: ‘Drones’ Asks Big Questions Without Pretending to Know the Answers

By  · Published on November 10th, 2013

What does it mean to follow orders over instinct? On the outskirts of Las Vegas, Drones finds former fighter pilot Sue Lawson (Eloise Mumford) assigned to operate an unmanned aircraft in order to carry out her latest mission. The order seems simple enough: monitor a specific area for a high value target, and once that target is confirmed, eliminate it. But the target has a face, and a family, and the more Sue analyzes the situation, the more questions she finds herself asking.

But Sue is not alone in her mission. She is second in command to pilot Jack Bowles (Matt O’Leary), an easygoing guy with a year of experience under his belt who prefers to focus on the mission at hand and little else. He seems like a guy who has simply played a few too many video games at first – a comparison the film addresses head on within the first few minutes – but his desire to not ask questions is more for self-preservation than ignorance. The two are tasked with watching a residence that seems to have little activity surrounding it, but when it becomes clear the family is preparing for a birthday celebration that will likely bring their designated target home, Sue and Jack work quickly to try and eliminate their target before he reaches his family.

Director Rick Rosenthal creates an increasingly claustrophobic world within Sue and Jack’s bunker as more and more civilians arrive on the scene and the two struggle with their orders. Sue is clearly driven and ambitious while Jack seems to be more of a joker, but those superficial roles quickly change as each begins to question the true motive of their “simple” mission. As the dynamic changes between the two, a palpable push and pull ignites between Sue and Jack as Mumford and Leary truly come to life, each delivering memorable performances.

Other influences call in to or arrive at the bunker, but for the majority of Drones’ 82-minute runtime, it is Sue and Jack going toe-to-toe with one another to try and do what they think is right, and what they will be able to personally live with at the end of the day. The constant role reversal as new information comes in and Sue and Jack react to it feels a bit scattered at first, but as the film races towards its inevitable climax, Mumford and Leary find a mesmerizing rhythm that will have you holding your breath throughout the third act.

As one would guess, Drones addresses bigger questions of moral responsibility versus civic duty, but screenwriter Matt Witten makes sure to present both sides of the coin to create a film that is powerful without being preachy. Witten’s background as a playwright works to his advantage here as he understands how to craft performances meant for confined spaces, but his dialogue feels forced in the beginning, making Sue and Jack initially feel more like caricatures than people.

There are no easy answers here and Drones shines when Witten’s script is able to explore different scenarios that make you constantly rethink things as you’re forced to watch Sue and Jack fight against an increasingly impossible situation.

The Upside: A smartly drawn out narrative that weaves in different motivations and information in an engaging way and an electric third act driven by Mumford and Leary fully coming into their characters.

The Downside: Slightly choppy pacing and awkward dialogue throughout the first two acts.

On the Side: Rosenthal thought he could make Drones confined location work after watching Buried.