The first of MANY movies releasing on Netflix in 2021, “Outside the Wire” is a science fiction-action film that explores a traditional genre concept: how far is too far when using AI for war? Starring and produced by Anthony Mackie, the film sees the actor portray a one-of-a-kind android soldier who teams with a drone pilot named Lt. Harp (Damson Idris) to hunt down a dangerous warlord seeking access to lost Russian nukes. The basic story elements are nothing special borrowing all sorts of clichés from far superior works, but where “Outside the Wire” truly attempts to set itself apart is in its exploration of the human element of decision making in times of conflict. It only kind of succeeds by asking important questions but never being brave enough to take its underlying message to the extreme.
“Outside the Wire” sets up its plot by introducing us to Lt. Harp as a young drone pilot who makes a difficult decision to put lives in danger to save countless more. As a form of punishment and retraining, the Marines assign Harp to work with a soldier named Leo, played by Mackie, who is an experimental prototype android that understands empathy and human emotion but is much more powerful and intuitive than the average human being. We see Harp and Leo trying to chase down antagonist Victor Koval (Pilou Asbæk) but as you might expect there’s more than meets the eye with Leo. Anthony Mackie has proven to be a capable actor in recent years, and this is one of the few times he serves as a true leading man. For what it’s worth, he is the best part of this movie providing us with an android character like few we get to see in film, one that would not only pass the Turning Test but who may have more understanding for compassion and tact than any actual human being. There’s a fine complexity and mystery to how Mackie brings Leo to life and while we might not always agree with his methods it’s hard to deny the logic behind the things he does.
Most of the movie revolves around Mackie’s Leo working alongside Damson Idris as Lt. Harp and while I give credit for Idris portraying a character that truly evolves and despite making questionable decisions is willing to own them because he feels he has done what’s right, Mackie acts circles around Idris who often feels overshadowed by his co-star especially in more tense situations. The rest of the cast is filled with cliché characters that usually make up these kinds of films but most of them come with a badass edge to them that help them stand out from the pack. Sadly, anything this movie has going for it does get drowned out by its dependence on convention. “Outside the Wire” uses its characters and clichés to attempt to provide insight into the seemingly heartless way America and other countries have turned to machines to do their bidding separating them from the destruction they cause. The idea behind using a drone pilot as the main human character is that his decisions were driven by his humanity, but in the end his actions still occurred while he was safe thousands of miles away from the battlefield. Leo, as a machine built for personal combat, seems to have a much better understanding of the destruction war can cause to innocents. The entire plot revolves around this idea combining it with the typical genre concept of the dangers of creating artificial intelligence that can act with free will.
Despite its best efforts though, “Outside the Wire” can’t get out of its own way and forsakes its deeper themes for some admittedly fun action and going all in with clichés that do tend to work more often than not. This could have been a genuinely insightful picture with an identity all its own, but there’s very little I can bring up that helps it stand out on a surface level and the little things that lie beneath the surface aren’t given enough development and sincere thought to draw the viewer in. I’ll admit I had fun watching this movie. I appreciated what it was trying to say and for a Netflix film of the week the acting is far from the worst I’ve seen. However, I found the whole package instantly forgettable and another great example of the pieces being greater than the sum of its parts. Even the action falls short of the entertainment value that helped fellow Netflix films like “Extraction”, “The Old Guard” and “Project Power” remain memorable in 2020 in spite of how familiar and derivative they were.
“Outside the Wire” had potential, and, for what it is, it’s a pretty good time. But it could have and should have been so much more. The pieces are there. The concepts are insightful and deep, but there’s not enough done with them in the final product. It feels too safe and unwilling to go the extra mile to fully explore its challenging ideas which makes the whole experience feel like a missed opportunity. Granted it makes for a fun living room popcorn flick and there are far worse movies out there, especially on Netflix, but it still disappoints me that I feel like this could have been so much better. It’s a movie I’d recommend just for the entertainment value alone, but as a critic I’d call “Outside the Wire” nothing more than a typical genre piece unwilling to take those extra leaps to truly sell its worthy themes.