As the bounds of technology increase, the discussion around how to best use it also becomes more convoluted. It’s definitely a topic that more and more films are interested in tackling. Anyone with a few extra bucks can buy a drone, and as ownership increased, resulted in the FAA stepping in and creating regulations in order to fly said drones. The availability of this tech has allowed the military to use Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to scout hostile areas and use its weapons when necessary without risking the life of a pilot.
The idea of using machines in place of man is the key plot to Netflix’s Outside the Wire, centered around understanding actions and consequences first hand. It’s what this movie builds around, but the payoff falters as the story progresses.
Outside the Wire
Director: Mikael Håfström
Release Date: January 15, 2020 (Netflix)
In 2036, Eastern Europe is caught in a civil war as the ghost-like terrorist Viktor Koval wrests power to obtain the codes for a nuclear missile. Caught in the middle of an ambush during a peacekeeping mission, a platoon of Marines and their Gumps (robot soldiers) are pinned down with seemingly no way out. Overhead, a UAV piloted halfway across the world by Lieutenant Thomas Harp (Damson Idris) keeps a watch on the situation. Calmly eating gummy bears while listening to gunfire and shouts over his headset, Harp makes the ultimate decision to disobey an order and take out an enemy weapon, killing two Marines but saving the rest of the platoon.
Facing expulsion, Harp instead gets reassigned to the command of Captain Leo (Anthony Mackie) with the goal that Harp will better understand the consequences of his actions. Sitting behind a screen and pressing buttons is a lot different after seeing a fight firsthand, as Harp is reminded by a commanding officer. As Harp is thrown into his new surroundings, the shock of his reassignment quickly shifts when he learns Leo is a machine, more advanced than the linear minded Gumps seen throughout the film.
As trust builds between the two, deception becomes evident. Leo has motives of his own, and uses Harp’s trust to persuade and manipulate anytime Harp begins to dissent. While Koval may have been the initial target, he’s not the ultimate. Leo recognizes something bigger than what’s visible in front of him, as the country that created him continues to start wars and increase collateral damage. Leo’s thought process is that if he creates collateral–deaths–in the United States with a nuke, the long-term result would be fewer machines and therefore less America instilled in other countries. Harp struggles with understanding, so Leo extrapolates. Harp made the call to kill two Marines to save many, so why shouldn’t he allow Leo to do the same on a much grander scale?
The premise behind Outside the Wire isn’t new–other films have tackled robot versus human soldiers and the existential dilemma such a discussion inflicts–but director Mikael Håfström’s take on the matter never feels fully realized, and by the end, the viewer is left wondering if any grand scheme lessons were truly learned. Instead, what is left is a film that begins with promise and turns out more like a mediocre Call of Duty movie.
Anthony Mackie, for his part, seems to relish in the role. Ripe with snappy one-liners, Mackie commands his authoritative android Leo quite well. In one particular scene, Leo asks why Harp thinks he was given the face and skin he has. “Why would the Pentagon pick my face to represent the United States Marines? Why wouldn’t they make me a blond-haired, blue-eyed, all-American varsity peckerwood? Psy-ops. My sleeve might say US but my face conveys neutrality. Makes people calm.” It’s this confidence and mindset that makes it so easy for Leo to string Harp along as he gets further entwined in the android captain’s web. The connection between Mackie and Idris comes across almost as a mentor/mentee relationship, but with more swearing and gunfire, and the sting of the twist hits a little harder because of it. In a movie that centers on dispassionate decision-making, Leo’s playful annoyance and barbs towards Harp provide a sense of relationship in an otherwise dark and cold situation.
The film doesn’t skimp on the exposition, jumping right into the details as the ambush opening, and some more for good measure when Harp meets Leo. There are plenty of fight scenes to keep the adrenaline levels high, and there is a good mix of conflict types. There’s a tense standoff between Marines and a group of locals raiding a supply truck, a hostage situation at a bank that includes an impressive chase scene. The fights are generally entertaining to watch, though the opening edit cuts give the table scene in Bohemian Rhapsody a run for its money, while others noticeably use the shaky camera technique to help Mackie look like a faster fighter.
What starts as a promising premise–a machine with empathy and a human without–is concluded with lackluster predictability. The film never visits who created Leo, or the Gumps (or what “Gump” even means), instead choosing to believe that information isn’t important. Håfström opts for the safe route and never really returns to the part of the story that made it enticing in the first place, leaving Outside the Wire bland and empty.