Outside the Wire promises a sci-fi military story that will ask some pretty big questions about warfare. What does humanity mean in the middle of the battlefield? How will technology affect the future of warfare? Are soldiers becoming more dispassioned because of advancements in military technology? These are wonderful things to ponder and to use genre storytelling to explore. One of the best properties to do this is the video game series Metal Gear Solid. And with Netflix’s Outside the Wire, it feels like the movie wants very much to capture that same sense of criticism and introspection.
Unfortunately, Outside the Wire falls extremely short of those goals. Director Mikael Håfström (1408) succumbs to a directorial and visual approach that makes the entire endeavor feel like any old military action movie made since 2007. The filmmaking is competent but never unique or engaging enough to bolster the script by Rowan Athale and Rob Yescombe. Even if it was, the script would be getting in the way. The story revolves around Lieutenant Thomas Harp (Damson Idris), a drone pilot who sacrifices the lives of two soldiers in order to destroy an enemy weapon. As punishment, he is sent under the supervision of Captain Leo (Anthony Mackie), who tasks him with a secret mission. Leo ends up revealing himself to be a manufactured robotic being with a mission of his own.
There is plenty of sci-fi meat on Outside the Wire‘s bones, but it seems extremely disinterested in actually exploring those ideas to their fullest. Instead, it is a vehicle for more standard military action fare and an overly plotted story. Though there are discussions about humanity and how it relates to the idea of war, the movie treats those facets as stepping stones to action and video game plot beats. It never stops for long enough to reckon with some of the stimulating philosophical questions it’s posing. Instead, it plays more like Training Day that just got reskinned with robots and an indistinct war.
That is a particular shame considering the caliber of actors Outside the Wire managed to grab for this production. Anthony Mackie is easily the standout here, proving that he has the charisma and nerve to be a leading man in action cinema. That was already apparent in other projects but he really does get to take center stage here. Leo could easily come across as cold on the page but Mackie does infuse him with some much-needed warmth at crucial moments. And Damson Idris is no slouch. He is being asked to do a very rote and tired role – the rookie that has to survive his first real day in action – but he sells it as best as anyone could. He works best in tight close-ups when he can emote wordlessly, and there is definitely a reason to keep your eye on him as a rising talent in the industry.
However, these two great thespians can’t rescue Outside the Wire from its bland story or uninteresting action. There are moments when the movie threatens to break out into interesting and even challenging commentary, but once it does, it all has the weight of a lame Call of Duty game. There is clearly a balance here between being critical of war and also being reverent of the soldiers that perform in it. In this way, Outside the Wire feels too timid to work as any kind of legitimate commentary about anything. It only postures itself as saying something when it really comes across as vapid by the movie’s final moments.
And that sucks because all the pieces are in place for something genuinely thought-provoking. Outside the Wire clearly wants to talk about what it means to have robotic soldiers and, in turn, how that reflects on the robotic nature of human soldiers. “War as programming” is a fascinating angle to approach, but Outside the Wire seems too skittish to really push the envelope with its beliefs or questions.
As it is, Outside the Wire has the overall feel of a lazy Sunday afternoon cable movie that your dad would have probably liked. It’s got empty wartime spectacle, some masculine pontifications that seem more full of depth than they actually are, and gadgetry that looks cool without doing much more than that. It’s an empty experience that wastes its best aspects and offers very little in the sci-fi genre arena. You’re better off playing Metal Gear Solid instead.