Every move you make …

It fascinates me that cinema, the most technologically advanced art form of our time, has such mixed (or hypocritical) attitudes towards technology itself. It was apparent in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, to name just one obvious example, and it’s clear too in Eagle Eye.

Eagle Eye comes to us from the director and star of Disturbia, which was essentially a remake of Hitchcock’s Rear Window without acknowledgement. Of course Hitchcock was very interested in scopophilia, the drive to look and see, and how that shades into voyeurism and thus fantasy — a complex of drives and desires at the deepest roots of cinema itself. Film is essentially a technology designed to feed (and to feed off) our lust to see, to watch; it generates visual fantasies to keep us hooked.

So it’s interesting that Eagle Eye revolves around the ultimate surveillance technology. Here fantasy is at play again, including the American military fantasy of almost supernatural capabilities — super-toys for the superpower.

Shia LaBeouf (whose name makes him sounds like an item on the menu of a Muslim restaurant) plays a young man under assault by a mysterious force. Calls come at him out of nowhere, predicting things that then happen a few seconds later: traffic lights change, trains stop and start — He’s being controlled and directed from afar, except he has no idea what’s going on. This is also happening to a young woman (Michelle Monaghan), and the two are thrown together in this scary situation, marionettes of forces beyond their ken.

This echoes other movies in which innocent or unsuspecting people find themselves caught in a series of baffling, threatening events. Again, Hitchcock movies spring to mind: The 39 Steps, The Wrong Man and North by Northwest, in particular (plus Fritz Lang’s movie of Graham Greene’s novel, The Ministry of Fear), not to mention a climax that echoes The Man Who Knew Too Much (as well as John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate).

I apologise if this is beginning to sound like a catalogue of movies other than the film under review, but perhaps that’s a sign of the kind of movie this is: it was clear about half a century ago that, to paraphrase the 1980s pop group, cinema would eat itself. Eagle Eye is a prime example of just that, and not in a good way, because it’s not self-aware or ironic.

It also works with themes set forth in movies such as Enemy of the State, Terminator III: Rise of the Machines and, further back, 2001. Have our fancy tools and toys turned on us and become our masters?

2001 famously posited the computer Hal, which was so good at running a spaceship that it began to find the human occupants dispensible. Hal certainly saw all, or almost all, and didn’t brook dissent. As in Eagle Eye, this reads as a comfortingly humanistic message that we should be careful about giving our technology too much power, especially technology of surveillance and control, and that we can ultimately escape from it. Except, as I said, this is entirely hypocritical in cinema, which is a technology built on the idea of omniscient surveillance (albeit of a fictional world), and one that seeks to control and direct our attention and emotions as viewers. It’s the ultimate fantasy of the scopophiliac, and we’re all scopophiliacs.

As film theorist Christian Metz pointed out, the viewer automatically identifies with the camera itself, with its gaze, before he or she identifies with a character or a specific point of view within the narrative. In fact, the identification with the camera’s gaze is what enables the later identification with a person in the story and hence emotional involvement. The camera’s apparent omniscience, and our psychic investment in it, offers the fantasy of power that film offers the participating viewer.

Which is why Eagle Eye is one of those movies that wants to have its cake and eat it. We love the super-technology, but we’re also allegedly on the side of the ordinary guy and gal fighting against the machine. That’s a contradiction, but it helps push the storyline along — and the story of Eagle Eye works as far as it goes. The film is reasonably entertaining, keeping one fairly gripped for the length of its running time, even if one remains aware of the increasing number of preposterous linkages holding it together.

It implicitly refers to recent American political issues such as the Patriot Act, which allows the state greater surveillance and monitoring of the American people, to the detriment of civil liberties. It also wants to locate the film’s story in relation to big geopolitical goings-on such as Iraq, but here it comes unstuck, revealing that it’s not really interested in such things except as background and as a piquant narrative note. This produces the moment that, if Eagle Eye were a piece of knitting, would be the weak thread you’d pull on to unravel it.

There’s a prologue about an assassination in a country that could be Afghanistan or Iraq. Later we overhear a radio broadcast telling us and the protagonists how, as a result, anti-American sentiment has flared in “the Middle East”, a generic area that reminds one that many Americans think “Africa” is a country. And now there are bombs going off in “Belugastan” — which is where? The place we get the caviar from?

Perhaps we humans are no longer in charge, if we ever were. The technologies we made (especially our technologies of pleasure and power) have taken over, and we exist now merely to service them. We are their bacteria. Like the God who created humanity so he could have something outside himself to love and worship him, film uses us; we are simply a vehicle for the cinema’s vast and brooding contemplation of itself.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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