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— by Brandee J. Tecson

In a world rife with terrorist attacks, nuclear threats and the imminent prospect of "digital warfare," the premise behind director Rob Cohen's latest film feels part science fiction, and part ripped-from-the-headlines techno-thriller.

See an exclusive sneak of "Stealth" on Overdrive!

The movie, in theaters July 29, tracks an elite trio of U.S. Navy pilots — Ben Gannon (Josh Lucas), Kara Wade (Jessica Biel) and Henry Purcell (Jamie Foxx) — who, out of 400 applicants, are tapped to fly highly classified stealth fighter jets, dubbed Talons. When a fourth, virtual wingman — an artificial-intelligence-based Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle, or UCAV — is added to one of their flight missions, the three are forced to deal with the possibility of their own sudden (and permanent) obsolescence.

The AI technology behind these hypersonic fighter jets (dubbed Extreme Deep Invader, or EDI, in the film) is not merely a Hollywood concoction: It's being developed today, and Biel, for one, sees the notion of a droid Army, Navy and Air Force as not-so-far-fetched.

"This technology is happening for real," says the 23-year-old actress, "and that's what's so interesting about this film. This is stuff the Navy and the military are working on to see if it's really possible."

In the film, EDI completes its first mission without fail, but on the way back to base, a lightning strike short-circuits the drone's brain, causing it to react in ways its creators never envisioned. As the Talon squad leader, Gannon requests, unsuccessfully, that the rogue machine be scrubbed from the next mission. And when EDI begins to act against direct orders, Gannon and his pals must find a way to prevent the UCAV from carrying out a top-secret mission that, if executed, could result in nuclear Armageddon.

"For those who think this [technology] is science fiction — it isn't. It is science fact," director Cohen ("The Fast and the Furious," "XXX") insists. "These planes are online in Afghanistan and Iraq today, and they are part of an effort to take human pilots out of the battle front. The film is a cautionary tale of what could happen if we take this idea to its logical extreme."

"The problem," Foxx says, "is that until we satisfy the thirst for war, even if we got sticks and stones, if you want to hurt a person, that's what you're gonna do. We need to look within ourselves and say, 'Hey, man, why are we trippin'?'"

Lucas notes that a future of digitally driven warfare, if directed solely by artificial intelligence, will lack the moral dimension that is especially crucial in the heat of combat.

The "Stealth" premiere at the Coronado Naval Air Station North Island

"Stealth" photos

Check out everything we've got on "Stealth."

"[Eventually, fighter planes] might all be computer-driven," he observes, "and that poses very complex, disturbing questions. Does it mean that a plane can decide to bomb because it doesn't think about what the moral ramifications will be? I have a hard enough time with the Internet these days, much less a plane that could destroy the world."

In order to authentically portray modern military life, Cohen worked closely with active-duty and retired U.S. Navy technical experts, who oversaw scenes that focused on the ways that the military systems would be deployed, and how a flight leader would work with his respective wingmen.

Naval Liaison Lieutenant Commander Christy Hagen coordinated all interactions between the production and the Navy, and confirmed that the Navy is already using UCAVs in its present missions.

"They have become a vital military tool that can be effectively used to help keep our pilots safe," she says.

All of the principal actors also underwent significant background training in order to fully grasp their characters as stealth fighter pilots. Lucas completed a class of aviation psychology and, along with Biel, went through Flight Survival Training School (a water-survival training course) in San Diego.

The stars of "Stealth" talk about the use of artificial intelligence in combat:

Jessica Biel

Josh Lucas

Jamie Foxx

"We would take a mock helicopter, crash it upside down into a pool, and as the helicopter is flipping upside down, you have to be able to get out, blindfolded, from under the water," Lucas said of the grueling regimen. "It's extraordinary what these guys can do, and I became fascinated by what a complex and difficult job it is."

The crew simulated flying an aircraft by shooting against a green screen on a machine called a gimbal, a 100-ton device that spins on five different axes and allows an object — like a fighter jet, for example — to incline and rotate at different angles in all directions, while also pulling as many as 5 Gs. (Exterior shots were filmed primarily in Australia — where the varied landscape doubled for locales as distinct as Alaska and North Korea — as well as in Northern Thailand and on the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson off the coast of San Diego.)

"You climb into this thing that's basically a human eggbeater," Lucas says of the gimbal, "and you get flipped around all day and have to give your dialogue to a tennis ball. I [ended up] with three concussions in the period of a week."

The actor also provided all of his own stunts, to the point where he questioned his and his co-stars' safety. "At the end of the movie, there's a helicopter 10 feet above Jessica and me, one of the largest helicopters on earth. We looked at each other at one point and were like, 'Oh my God, is this safe?'"

Biel, meanwhile, credits her character, Kara, as a source for her own inspiration and strength during the demanding shoot. "She is an incredibly smart, strong woman who is in the boys' club and can handle it and can work it."

If nothing else, Cohen says, the film will take viewers through a new sort of moviegoing experience.

"This isn't a film where you're safely sitting in the audience. You're in the story. You're in the cockpit. You are flying with these actors, who are making it all come alive. What better way to spend a summer night?"

Check out everything we've got on "Stealth."

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