Review: Forest Swords Meets Drones In The Robot Skies

In October, the British Film Institute premiered the first narrative science fiction film shot entirely with pre-programmed drones at its 60th film festival. In The Robot Skies was a collaboration between architect Liam Young and electronic producer Forest Swords, who performed the accompanying score live in London’s BFI IMAX Cinema. His music created a tense musical dialogue that provided the only constant in the film, which cuts suddenly between locations, camera angles, points of view and color contrasts with no clear and overt plotline. But while the film is focused on drones, human characters do feature; it traces the love story of two teenagers, Jazz and Tamir, who are separated by tall concrete buildings and communicate illegally via drone.

In The Robot Skies isn’t Young’s first project to meld a relationship between live music and drones or to flirt with the boundary between nature and technology. His mechanical Beamer Bee used robots to pollinate flowers, and in 2014, he and prolific Welsh artist John Cale flew drones around London’s Barbican concert hall as part of a mechanical orchestra performance that provided a new context to machines designed for military functionality and surveillance. Young’s use of drones in In The Robot Skies both vilifies and humanizes the machines, which survey and observe but also express their own personality through unique decorations like spiraling white structures or colorful plastic toys. The overall effect is that the machines seem to play a bigger role in the film than its human characters.

The all-seeing footage spans from the sprawl of London to the depths of the South American jungle, which we reach via’s Prime Air delivery drones—providing a surreal juxtaposition between nature and man-made technology. When a Prime Air drone delivering a Domino’s pizza appeared in In The Robot Skies, people in the cinema started to laugh as the pizza-drone descended towards the recipient’s face. But we rarely see the device used to such innocuous effect again throughout the rest of the film.  One sequence—in which a drone flies above a cornfield and zooms in on a couple having sex—feels particularly intrusive of people’s private experiences. Yet the anthropomorphized drone feels just as uneasy. “Are they watching me watching them?” it hesitantly questions.

While definitely dystopian, In The Robot Skies reflects the realities of current surveillance culture in England’s capital. The South London borough of Croydon alone has more CCTV cameras than all of New York City, and a report from 2012 estimated that people are spotted on camera at an average of 300 times a day. The tower blocks where Jazz and Tamir live are closely monitored; cameras scour the outside and glance at different apartments as personal profiles with numbers pop up at each window. For a short while, their wide smiles beam back in the glow of the light of the drone’s screen, but before long their messages are intercepted by youth security, and Jazz receives a warning that police are on their way to arrest her while Forest Swords’ galloping drums heighten to underline the tension.

Given the film’s subject, I had anticipated that the live score would lean more towards the drone genre—and while there are droneish tones, the music is more accurately characterized by sparse, thudding instrumentation and choral elements. But for a film that focuses on futurism and advanced technology, Forest Swords’ score is surprisingly human and organic. As the only spoken language throughout the film comes from the point of view of a bot, its narration gives the device feelings, emotions and complex thought. “I’ve always been used to seeing the invisible,” it intones. It’s a chilling reminder that drones have access to things that are not always accessible to the human eye.

Forest Swords perfectly captures the pit-in-your-stomach feeling that accompanies many of the voyeuristic scenes. So despite the peaceful, whistling choral voices that brush through our ears as we stroll through the exteriors of suburban houses and witness drone food delivery, the space between vocals and abrasive drums creates an uneasy atmosphere. Percussion is key to Barnes’ musical accompaniment, and it trails like the footsteps of a person engaging in a futile tantrum; drums thud in a slow, limp manner. Towards the end, his live experimentations become even more delicate, with piano strokes recreating the same emotionality that made his Tri Angle Records debut album, Engravings, so endearing. Still, the soundtrack is more left-field than Barnes’ official releases.

Yet it also nods to more mainstream musical figures: M.I.A sings silently and dances with girls in front of a tower block as glistening neon drones track their movements to Barnes’ sonics. Later, Enrique Iglesias gets overenthusiastic upon meeting a drone during a concert. Red liquid drips steadily from his hands, but he merely smiles and carries on with the show. “I warned him not to get too close,” the robotic narration sympathetically relays in the depths of the cinema theatre.

The film’s image of drones lingering overhead like an unwanted dark cloud creates a sense of dread, fear and anxiousness that may be closer to reality than we’d like to think. Amazon recently provided details about its Prime Air delivery drone lab in Cambridge, where it’s developing aircraft that it will use to transport packages. As drone technology progresses, it seems likely that filming with pre-programmed drones will become more common. Science fiction scenarios like In The Robot Skies are more chilling than those involving aliens or cyborgs because they’re more rooted in the realities of our present day. Although created through computer software, Forest Swords’ accompanying live score feels very live and human, which mimics the relationship between the natural and technological that Young often investigates. It is the exploration of those two different worlds that makes In The Robot Skies such an intriguing and thought-provoking watch.