War’s supposed to be terrible. If it’s not terrible, then what’s to stop us?
— Ben (Josh Lucas)
“You’re a singularity, you are a freak of nature.” This assessment of super-pilot Kara (Jessica Biel), made by fellow super-pilot Henry (Jamie Foxx), is supposed to be a compliment. She’s good at what she does (flying Talon jets) and how she comports herself, making her the (slightly futuristic) Navy’s “poster girl” for femme fliers. That is, she’s not a lovely, leggy, perfectly made-up figure whose primary purpose is one-night bedding. Instead, she’s a lovely, leggy, perfectly made-up figure whose primary purpose is to provide moral framing for the boys’ brilliant strikes and calculations.
This means Kara, essentially the only girl in the picture with dialogue (Henry’s temporary Thai squeeze [Jaypetch Toonchalong] doesn’t speak English), grounds Stealth‘s re-articulation of Top Gun erotics. Desirable and admirable, intimidating and brilliant, she provides the super-pilots’ team leader, Ben (Josh Lucas), with a heterosexually appropriate object of desire (as opposed to the whole Goose-Maverick man-love). Still, Kara’s function as moral conscience, strained and stereotypical as it may be, complicates Stealth in potentially useful ways. She worries about killing farmers in Tajikistan, pointing out that collateral radiation damage is longlasting and extra-costly in human terms.
That’s not to say Kara throws much of a wrench into the all the grandly military-technological plot. Indeed, Stealth is on some level a gargantuan, hyper-expensive video game (this despite Ben’s dutiful expression of concern: “I just don’t think war should become a videogame”). The more effective wrench is actually the UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle) nicknamed EDI (pronounced “Eddie”), a newfangled robotic fighter jet whose family tree includes WarGames, 2001‘s HAL, and Terminator‘s Skynet.
Touted by commanding officer Captain George Cummings (Sam Shepard) as “the future of digital warfare,” EDI is slick to see. All blinking lights (“EDI’s thinking!”) and silky vocals (again, think HAL, here voiced by Wentworth Miller), he appears to be shiny and flawless for a minute. But when he’s almost immediately zapped by lightning during a stormy aircraft carrier landing, he veers off into some micro-chipped dark soul of the night. Suddenly, he’s conniving, selfish, and ambitious, eager to blow up any target within range, even those designated “hypothetical.” And so EDI essentially goes on a sort of exploding-stuff rampage, with the other Talon pilots in hot pursuit.
Stealth (which only briefly deals with the issue of “stealth,” as most of the action is loud, excessively visible, and crisis-generating) emphasizes that EDI gets his idea for seeking out targets on his own by observing Ben go off orders during a mission to execute a group of terrorists meeting in Rangoon. When Ben’s disobedience produces desired results and earns reluctant praise from Cummings and consternation from ship captain Marshfield (Joe Morton). While Marshfield distrusts the machine from jump, Cummings wants to make it work so badly that he deploys it without ensuring it’s working right.
Ben and Cummings go back some, professionally, so they spend a few minutes arguing philosophical points of war. Where Cummings (metaphorically in bed with a literally shady Washington, visible through windows as he barks orders at Cummings on his office phone — not too slick in terms of covering trails), Ben is all about the “human” costs. (At least until he gets to shoot up targets from his cockpit.) Both supposedly want fewer dead bodies (or, as Cummings terms the problem, “body bags”). When Cummings sternly instructs his mentee, “Your mistake was getting competitive with a machine,” self-declared “point of the sword up there” Ben counters that this is exactly what makes him different from and superior to the machine. “We have instincts and feelings and moral judgments” (he’s been listening to Kara, after all).
Indeed, the central tension has to do with how judgments are made. EDI’s designer, the horrendously named Keith Orbit (Richard Roxburgh) appears a jaunty, glib, millionaire designer, attended by a busomy secretary and a couple of kids with laptops. He goes frantic when Cummings informs him EDI’s off grid, especially when he’s forced to meet with his creation in Alaska to fix it, as this is a little too much hands-on action for a self-defensive nerd. (If only he could fix the machine’s basically corny self-concept: “EDI is a warplane. EDI must have targets.”)
Unfortunately (even more unfortunately than you can know), the folks who are primed for action — the three pilots — don’t get to work out their excellent synchronicity for very long. W.D. Richter’s screenplay splits them up as they look for EDI, which makes for some ungainly splitting and multiplying of action-strands. Kara ends up having to eject over North Korea and before you can say “Owen Wilson,” she’s scampering all over mountaintops and dark plains, trying to avoid instantly assembled heavy firepower (led by a recurrent, malicious-looking Korean in uniform, who makes it his personal mission to glower at every turn of her escape tactics). As she’s playing an able-bodied, wily Pauline (as in, she’s imperil), Ben is chasing after EDI, trying to reason with him even as the machine does its multi-circuited best to destroy him. Aiieee!
The action bits are predictably well-choreographed and boisterous, but they’re strangely distracting (yes, even in an action movie, too much of a good thing is still too much). Stealth wants to be a smarter movie than it is, posing the cases for and against technological warfare, tracing foibles not only of individuals within the financing and command systems, but also in the systems themselves. A self-declared post-9/11 action movie, it is mightily conflicted, exhilarating in the visuals and visceral effects, but stubbornly clinging a core idea, that war is actually bad — for everyone. EDI, in fact, is granted one of the most telling lines in the film, when he cuts off a commanding officer trying to give him an order. When Ben wonders why, EDI pronounces, “There was nothing left to say.”