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Going a step or two beyond the usual worries over what will happen once armies let military robots make trigger-pulling decisions for themselves, Mikael Hafstrom’s Outside the Wire introduces multiple kinds of robo-warrior but is still most worried about the here-and-now issue of “collateral damage” in combat. Anthony Mackie’s presence — as an android on a mission alongside his human subordinate (Damson Idris) — will draw extra attention to the Netflix film, which proves to be a fairly conventional military-action pic despite its moments of Asimovian philosophy. It’s not really the showcase Mackie has long deserved, and at any rate, Idris’ morally troubled young human is the story’s real protagonist; but few fans will be very disappointed as the credits roll.
Idris plays Lt. Harp, a drone operator who until now has only seen combat through cameras from the far-away comfort of an office chair. It’s 2036, and his beat is the Ukraine, which Russia still wants to re-absorb; Harp’s drones fly above ordinary troops, raining down serious explosives when the situation calls for it. Thanks to the futuristic setting, those human combatants are joined by “gumps,” armored robots who can venture a bit further into the line of fire. (These machines look like they could plausibly exist fifteen years from now. The one we’re about to meet, not so much.)
RELEASE DATE Jan 15, 2021
Harp disobeys orders during one battle, knowingly allowing two injured Marines to die while he blows up a hostile vehicle that was about to kill them and a few dozen of their comrades. Rather than discharging him from service, an ethics board decides he’ll benefit from experiencing combat realities first-hand. They send him to the war zone he only knows from the sky, where he’s to report to Mackie’s Captain Leo: He’s been hand-picked to join Leo’s hunt for Viktor Koval (Pilou Asbaek), a local warlord seeking control of long-dormant nuclear missiles the Russians once left in Ukraine.
Leo is “not like us,” another officer warns Harp. At first, we assume that means he likes to listen to Louis Armstrong/Ella Fitzgerald duets while he analyzes intel in an office more thoughtfully art-decorated than military realities should allow. But no: Nearly nobody knows this, but Leo is a robot several generations more advanced than the gumps. He looks completely human, is designed to feel pain as a means to develop empathy, and curses as enthusiastically as any crusty commanding officer. Watching him at work, you’d never know he wasn’t human until bullets start to fly — at which point his reflexes and precise way with violence are pretty supernatural.
Everything about him is a secret, and as the men head off on a vaccine-delivery mission that is really cover for a meeting with a spy, Leo’s impatience with his hesitant underling may recall the dynamic between Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in Training Day. That’s a comparison that will lead only to disappointment, though. Despite strong performances from both men, no tense chemistry really develops between them, and a script by Rob Yescombe and Rowan Athale isn’t meaty or provocative enough to let Mackie create a character as memorable as Washington’s. Fair enough, one might say: Leo’s a robot. But this is a robot ready to test his limits.
The film follows the pair through meetings with resistance fighters (led by Emily Beecham’s Sofiya) and a few serious firefights before reaching a climactic battle over stolen nuclear codes. Here, Harp gets to see the tragedy of remote-controlled airstrikes in person. It’s a natural stopping point, but the filmmakers aren’t done teaching Harp to think twice about high-tech warfare.
In terms of plotting, the film’s revelations at this point serve it well, twistily raising the stakes and brightly illuminating Harp’s path. Conceptually, things are a little shakier: From the start, the exposition-heavy dialogue has left some ideas more convincing than others, and late-developing themes of a chain-of-command paradox aren’t awfully well developed. We’re left with the kind of race-to-the-bomb and morality-of-terrorism material that will be familiar to any viewer, in which the specifics of Leo’s nature matter much less than the increasing guilt Harp feels over the innocent people his joystick-warfare career has killed. Not the worst theme to emphasize to an audience one presumes will be largely young, male and attractive to military recruiters. But certainly not one that requires Outside the Wire‘s sci-fi trappings or satisfies the thornier questions they raise.
Production companies: 42, Automatik, Inspire Entertainment
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Damson Idris, Enzo Cilenti, Emily Beecham, Michael Kelly, Pilou Asbaek
Director: Mikael Hafstrom
Screenwriters: Rob Yescombe, Rowan Athale
Producers: Ben Pugh, Erica Steinberg, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Anthony Mackie, Jason Spire
Director of photography: Michael Bonvillain
Production designer: Kevin Phipps
Costume designer: Caroline Harris
Editor: Rickard Krantz
Composer: Lorne Balfe
Casting directors: Chelsea Ellis Bloch, Marisol Roncali, Nanw Rowlands
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