Drones have become such an accepted aspect of modern warfare that in the past decade or so, nearly every major action franchise has used them as a raising-the-stakes shortcut. They’ve fallen into the hands of various villains in dystopian futures, like Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie and Elysium, in much-hyped sequels like Furious 7, and in all three films of Gerard Butler’s Olympus Has Fallen series. In Hollywood’s imagination, terrorists really love mechanized weaponry.
But in reality, the use of drones — or, in official terminology, “unmanned aerial vehicles” — in the American military has grown exponentially, in particular during President Obama’s tenure in office. The principles of killing people while stationed at a desk halfway around the world have been mulled over in feature films (2015’s Eye in the Sky) and documentaries (2013’s Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars). The latest movie to explore the ethical ramifications of drones, Netflix’s future-war feature Outside the Wire, stumbles with its inability to engage with those ideas, even as it prioritizes them in its world-building.
Anthony Mackie’s parallel career trajectories as a military service member (in The Hurt Locker and as Sam Wilson/Falcon in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and a science fiction hero (Altered Carbon season 2, Synchronic) finally overlap in Outside the Wire, Netflix’s latest action movie about the U.S. armed forces. (It follows in the footsteps of 6 Underground, Extraction, and Triple Frontier before it.) Mackie produced and costars in this initially enjoyably paced thriller, which pairs a human and an android to explore the differences between man and machine. But the film runs out of steam quickly.
Director Mikael Håfström doesn’t supply Outside the Wire with any in-depth analyses of Asimov’s three laws of robotics here, any creepiness as unique as watching Michael Fassbender’s David tinker in his laboratory in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, or any action setpiece as unforgettable as the tunnel chase in Alex Proyas’s I, Robot. The film redeems its drably monochromatic production design with a snappy screenplay from Rob Yescombe and Rowan Athale, who provide a clearly-enjoying-himself Mackie with plenty of pithy one-liners and memorable insults. But larger ideological questions about humanity, artificial intelligence, and whether emotional sincerity or analytical prowess are more important for saving lives ultimately end up being immaterial in a film that settles on an overly familiar plot rather than digging into the themes it introduces and then abandons.
Outside the Wire is set in eastern Europe, where a violent civil war has festered and spread: Criminal warlord Viktor Koval (Pilou Asbæk) wants to make Ukraine a part of Russia, and has received support from the Kremlin to wage his terrorist attacks and enlist others to his cause. Thanks to U.S. involvement, much of the region has been destroyed, and its people are starving. While the United Nations has left, the U.S. maintains a presence as a “peace-keeping” force, although in reality that means military members regularly engage in shootouts, battles, and attacks, and are aided by drone pilots, who assess situations from afar and decide when to strike.
One of the very best is Lt. Thomas Harp (Damson Idris), whose guiding priority is to save as many lives as possible. If that means killing others, so be it. So when two Marines end up dead because Harp broke chain of command to initiate a drone strike that saved 38 other Americans, he rationalizes that he made the right choice (“the call that felt most correct,” he tells an investigating board), but his insubordination isn’t looked upon too fondly.
As punishment, Harp is sent to Camp Nathaniel in the war zone itself, where his commanding officer Col. Eckhart (Michael Kelly) greets him with “You should be in jail.” Harp’s job as a drone pilot requires a certain kind of clinical coldness and a willingness to fulfill difficult choices that could literally mean life or death, but even he is unprepared to learn that he’s been assigned to assist Leo (Mackie), a U.S. government prototype android meant to win over hearts and minds — and if that doesn’t work, to kill those who still dissent or oppose. Leo has feelings and is capable of empathy, he tells the shocked Harp, but he also has an iridescent torso made out of flexible metal, is a computer whiz, and is incredibly difficult to destroy. The U.S. military have developed a new killing machine, and gave it a human face.
Once the two meet, Leo enlists Harp to help him track down and kill Koval, who plans to gain access to the nuclear weapons Russia has left over from the Cold War; if they don’t stop his planned terrorist attacks on the U.S., Leo says, no one can. And yet for all his awareness of his mission, the commands he’s been given, and the government to whom he is responsible, Leo is resentful, bristling, and weary. He’s tired of being in this place, of seeing citizens killed in skirmishes between the Americans and the Ukrainians, and of being forced to seek intel on Koval from people trying to make a difference, like orphanage headmistress Sofiya (Emily Beecham). It’s all beginning to wear on him, so he seeks Harp’s assistance in helping him go “outside the wire” — military terminology for attacking the enemy. Once Koval is stopped, Leo reasons, and the civil war is over, the world will be a better place. Won’t it?
For the first hour or so of its run time, Outside the Wire seems far more complex, and less blandly patriotic, than it actually is. As Leo, Mackie is quick with a sardonic grin and a fiery temper, and his repeated mockery of Harp’s naïveté with an incredulous “You believe that?” is as amusing as his offense when Harp fumbles for a word to describe him. The action scenes fall neatly one after another, with a chase scene and explosion at a hospital followed quickly by a hostage crisis at a bank; the one-two punch effectively ratchets up tension. And the film does at least reference the reality of our time by wondering whether the U.S. military, with its endless financing, vast resources, and moral grandstanding, is really worthy of such prestige. When Sofiya points out that many of the orphans she houses are left without families because of American offenses, Harp’s morally fraught reaction packs a punch. He’s clearly wondering who he’s really fighting for, and who he’s really fighting.
It’s disappointing, then, that Outside the Wire pivots into a predictable twist that undoes that subversion. After setting up Leo and Harp as contrasting forces — Leo as the robot who can feel; Harp as the human who can’t — Håfström doesn’t pursue what shared experiences could have shaped such different figures. Each were creations of the U.S. military, but which one truly reflects its practices, its values, or its realities? What superiorities are found in being human, and what shortcomings? Outside the Wire proposes these classic genre questions, but doesn’t deliver suitable answers, and the unsatisfying patness of its ending is a disappointingly tidy conclusion for what had the potential to be a far more challenging film.
Outside the Wire is streaming on Netflix now.