They used to call it the “God’s eye” view: that overhead shot gazing directly down on to a scene, such as the bloodbath at the end of Taxi Driver. Elevated camera angles have always been part of cinema, but lately the future of the once-ubiquitous crane and helicopter shot has been thrown into doubt by a new phenomenon. Call it the attack of the drones.
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Skyfall and Jurassic World were early adopters of these metallic dragonflies; Time estimated in 2018 that the daily cost of using a drone in a film stood at between $4,500 and $13,000, compared to $20,000 to $40,000 for a helicopter. Now the airborne images seen in every YouTube travel video risk creating a homogenous style of cinematography. If any amateur can achieve that effect, how will movies set themselves apart?
One answer comes in Ladj Ly’s gritty French drama Les Misérables – not another adaptation of Victor Hugo’s doorstop classic but instead a tale of life in the troubled banlieue of Montfermeil. Cruising that beat are three cops, including one who, early on in the film, smashes a teenager’s mobile phone after she records him harassing her friend. When another young suspect is seriously injured by police later that day, there are no bystanders’ phones to destroy – just a drone, hovering overhead, which has seen everything.
The drone is piloted by teenager Buzz (played by the director’s son, Al-Hassan Ly), who has been using it to spy on young women. Like one of Brian de Palma’s protagonists – the sound recordist in Blow Out, the peeping tom in Body Double – Buzz never meant to witness a crime. But now he has. And as the police race to get their hands on the memory card, the film indicates a future for the drone in cinema: as part of the action itself rather than a slick, stylistic embellishment.
Les Misérables’ drone shots provide a serene vantage point on the street-level chaos. Ly’s chief influence, La Haine, also featured a sequence in which the camera floats over a housing estate, though in that case it was an expression of its characters’ inner lives rather than a plot device. But the drone’s role in Ly’s film is important precisely because of what it says about the world we live in. When drones previously appeared on screen, as in modern noir film Under the Silver Lake or the Black Mirror episode Hated in the Nation, they were portrayed as instruments of menace or voyeurism. Though Buzz’s intentions are hardly pure, his drone provides one of the film’s few forms of moral oversight.
In an age where the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd would likely have been forgotten without camera footage, it is the drone, like the mobile phone, that has the potential to be an instrument of justice. Les Misérables shows that, with the right technology, any one of us can have a God’s-eye view.
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