Q. Is life imitating art or art imitating life when it comes to drones?
Science fiction media has long been a home for new and advanced technology, and made predictions about the future use of technology. Of course, the movie Back to the Future II, released in the 1980s, made a number of erroneous predictions about what life would look like in 2015. One of the memorable visions was of a world full of flying cars. The Hollywood Reporter described one of the missed predictions: "it's 2015, and sadly, we still need roads."28 But the integration of drones into popular culture is a less far-fetched proposition since they are already a feature of conflict, commercial, and civilian life. Indeed, drones have increasingly featured in everything from movies to video games to books.
In terms of film, popular culture quickly adopted the theme of drones. Few if any are truly science fiction, the only one being Skyline (2010), which portrays aliens invading Earth, the US Air Force using drones to attack a spaceship hovering over Los Angeles, and one of the drones firing a nuclear weapon at the ship. Most of the films imitate some aspect of the American use of drones in the years after 9/11. Keeping in mind that the United States was quite quietly using drones in Afghanistan beginning in November 2001, and that its first strike outside a hot battlefield was in 2002, with no additional strikes until Pakistan in 2004, the 2005 introduction of drones into film reflects Hollywood's attentiveness to what were then subtle changes on the battlefield. Ironically, the first film to portray drones did so with a multirole carrier-based Navy drone which the Navy still has not developed. The movie was Stealth, in which the Navy creates a combat drone controlled by AI. The project goes awry when lightning strikes the drone, which causes it to go rogue. In the end, human pilots on the aircraft carrier must destroy the drone before it engages in more rogue attacks that would incite a world war. Film critic Roger Ebert declared that the plot defied logic, only in part because the drone-related aspects of the film were outlandish, but mostly because of other implausible aspects of the film, including that one of Navy officers crosses the Korean Demilitarized Zone and that the "North Koreans have neglected to plant land mines in the part of the DMZ that Wade must cross."29
More plausible and indeed successful was Mission Impossible 3, in which drones play a somewhat minor role when foreign mercenaries use a drone to attack Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team, allowing the mercenaries to extract Davian, who had captured Ethan. Drones were also portrayed in combat missions in several other movies, including most prominently in Syriana (2005), where the CIA used a Predator to assassinate the foreign minister of a recalcitrant emirate; the Bourne Legacy (2012), in which a CIA drone attacks the protagonist; Eagle Eye (2008), in which a Reaper is hijacked by a supercomputer attempting to eliminate the executive branch and the drone fires multiple missiles at the protagonist during a chase in downtown Washington before its subsequent destruction; Hummingbird (2013), in which the protagonist, an antihero and former soldier, is spotted and possibly killed by a British drone; and Furious 7 (2015), in which a drone is deployed over Los Angeles by the movie's antagonist to pursue and destroy the protagonists' vehicles. All of these films involve a similar plotline, which is the use of drones commanded or commandeered to strike targets. The next Top Gun movie takes drone operations to the next level, where Tom Cruise engages in dogfights with combat drones, which has not yet actually been a feature of contemporary conflict but likely will be in the future.
A handful of films have involved the ethical and psychological aspects of drones. From the Sky (2014) is a short film about an Arab father and son who travel through an area frequently targeted by US drones. The father suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to the drone strikes. In The Other Side (2014), a Pakistani boy observes American drone strikes in his neighborhood and subsequently joins a terrorist group. Picking up this theme of how strikes in places such as Pakistan have had ripple effects, Four Lions (2010) portrays four incompetent British jihadists traveling to a training camp in Pakistan, where they unsuccessfully attempt to shoot down an American drone. Good Kill (2014) takes the perspective of the drone operator himself, as it focuses on an American Air Force pilot who questions the morality of his job in the face of the vast degree of collateral damage caused by his missions. Two films address the domestic legality of drone policy. While The Giver (2014) shows drones are used by the government to monitor citizens and report acts of wrongdoing, Robocop (2014), the 2014 remake of the original 1987 film, acknowledges the legality of combat drones abroad but cites the fictional Dreyfus Act, which prevents domestic use of combat drones.
While film has been the most visible media form to involve drones, other media forms have joined in. In terms of television, the 2014 season of the show 24: Live Another Day centered on American drones, including one hijacked by a terrorist and used to attack London, and one episode of the popular show Homeland focused on an accidental CIA drone strike on a wedding party in Pakistan, quite closely mirroring an actual strike that occurred in Yemen.
Video games have also gotten in on the action. The whole Call of Duty franchise involves some aspect of drones, and Predator drones are frequently mentioned and deployed. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 includes American drones hijacked by a terrorist organization and used to attack China, a plot that bears resemblance to the show 24 discussed above. Books have increasingly drawn on drone imagery as well. Many of Tom Clancy's recent books involve drones. For example, in Threat Vector, China hacks into American military networks and disables the country's drone arsenal. Peter Singer, who has written nonfiction involving drones, has also written fiction, including a book called Ghost Fleet that is part science fiction and part fact, bringing together military fact in the form of stealth drones, cyberwar, and insurgency but also fiction in the form of space pirates. Lastly, former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke infuses his foreign policy expertise into a book called Sting of the Drone, in which a Pakistan-based terrorist group hacks into Predator drones based on Creech Air Force Base and uses them against the US government.
Science fiction has long integrated futuristic robotics into its images, with Isaac Asimov being among the first to popularize the futuristic technology with his robot short stories that he began writing in 1939. More recent popular culture has done more to reflect on the current applications than imagine those of the future, and has tried to take stock of the potential privacy, legal, and psychological implications of how drones have proliferated. In this respect, off-Broadway plays such as Grounded, which is a one-person drama that gets into the minds of a conflicted drone operator who goes to 12-hour shifts in an Air Force trailer and wrestles with the intimacy of seeing targets nearly side-by-side with her own family, captures many of the ongoing debates about the use of drones more generally.