Last week, Netflix announced their plan to release (at least) one new feature film each week of 2021. Some of these include follow-ups to tried and true properties (who’s ready for more Lara Jean?), but a lion’s share will be original productions attached to everyone from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to Lin-Manuel Miranda.
It’s only the fourth week of the year, and Netflix is already demonstrating that age-old truism that more does not mean better.
“Outside the Wire” is your typical sci-fi action flick. It’s set a handful of years in the future in an ambiguous Eastern European conflict between Russian sympathizers and Ukrainian resistance fighters, with the U.S. military performing its time-honored tradition of “mediating peace” by fighting both sides. Only, since it’s the future, they do it with robots in addition to warm bodies.
Lieutenant Harp (Damson Idris, “Farming”) is not one of those warm bodies, but rather, in a way, one of those robots: He’s an experienced drone pilot. After breaking the chain of command to save a few dozen soldiers at the expense of a couple caught in the crossfire, his superiors decide he needs to be inculcated with the gravity of his profession (y’know, war) — so away he goes to Ukraine for a taste of the action he’s hitherto only accustomed to seeing through a screen.
But surprise! Insubordination is no biggie — he’s been chosen for a secret mission by Captain Leo (Anthony Mackie, “The Banker”) who, in fact, likes Harp for his willingness to sacrifice for the greater good. Captain Leo is also not one of those warm bodies: He’s some sort of robot, but unlike the “Gumps” bots that fight on the front lines, he’s got a pretty face (his exact nature is “classified,” but we all get it: looks like a man, talks like a man, but runs fast, punches hard and can occasionally take off his skin and whatnot). Together, Harp and Leo have to venture “outside the wire” (slang for beyond the demilitarized zone) to stop bad guy Viktor Koval (Pilou Asbaek, “Run Sweetheart Run”) from seizing control of Russian nukes.
The film’s trying to say some things, perhaps along the lines of, ‘Drones are bad! The U.S. military does bad things!’ But mired in a colorless conflict in a future Ukraine that’s Ukrainian by only name, the film’s messages are weightless and unmoored. The Ukrainian resistance fighters resist because resistors got to resist. Koval wants the nukes for “world peace.”
Additionally, is the fact that the U.S. military made their super-commando android Black — a piece of tech that the military owns and can shut down at their discretion — a commentary on the enslavement of Black people or the discrimination people of color face today? This is the future, but not so far in the future that racism has evaporated.
Despite some light robot hatred here and there, the answer is no, not really. Instead, when confronted with moral dilemmas that are fertile ground for the trying questions the movie so desperately wants to ask, the heroes yell things like, “Humans can learn to do better! THAT is the greater good!”
To its credit, “Outside the Wire” does bring up some interesting questions. Time-worn questions to be sure, but the debate about how to handle things like “the greater good” persists for a reason, and the application of drone technology is something that certainly deserves further filmic examination.
But it’s ill-serviced by chintzy dialogue, tired tropes (there’s even a climactic count-down to an explosion) and a lack of willingness to drive its themes all the way home. Mackie and Idris perform admirably, and one is only sorry that the film couldn’t have been a better vehicle for both the weighty topics it broaches and the actors that buoyed what is otherwise a run-of-the-mill action flick.
Daily Arts Writer Jacob Lusk can be reached at email@example.com.