Netflix recently announced an initiative for 2021, promising a new original film every week through the coming year. It might be fair to wonder how Netflix could possibly keep such an ambitious release schedule when none of the Big Five major studios could do as much even before the pandemic. At a guess, it might help that Netflix doesn’t seem interested in throwing $200 million at a lavish tentpole release and praying for billion-dollar grosses.
In recent blog entries, I’ve already said my piece multiple times about how mainstream films are getting polarized into microbudget indie films and too-big-to-fail franchise tentpoles. This business model destroyed 20th Century Fox after their humiliating Marvel losses and their ballooning Avatar sequel costs. MGM is going belly-up (again!) after the pandemic kept their latest $250 million Bond movie from release. And it looks like Warner Bros. might be next to go, after a string of failures put them over $150 billion in debt.
Hollywood desperately needs to make mid-budget movies again, and it looks like Netflix is making that happen. The unfortunate downside is that this will most likely mean more Netflix original films like Project Power and Enola Holmes — highly ambitious movies whose reach far exceeded their grasp. Of course I can’t say for certain if another ten or twenty million dollars would’ve gotten either film to where they wanted to go, but both films nevertheless have a frustrating sense of untapped potential for some ineffable reason.
The latest example — and the first of the new 2021 initiative — is Outside the Wire.
Our stage is set in the year 2036, out in Ukraine. The Russians are trying to reclaim the nation, but there’s a local resistance movement to maintain Ukraine’s independence. The Russians are assisted by a local warlord named Viktor Koval (Pilou Asbæk), who’s applied his vast army of Krasny terrorists into blowing up the Resistance with the backing of Moscow. However, there’s reason to believe that Koval has recently gone rogue, slipping his leash to chase after nuclear missile silos left over from the Cold War.
In the other corner, the Resistance has the backing of the USA, who of course sent Marines and aerial drones to fight off the Russians and the Krasnys. I might add that the Marines also have automated soldiers — goddamn autonomous bipedal AI robot soldiers — affectionately called “Gumps”. There are Russian Gumps as well, but they’re fewer in number and considerably less advanced.
Our protagonist is Lt. Thomas Harp, played by Damson Idris. He’s known as a preternaturally talented drone pilot who’s never actually set foot onto any battlefield or fired a gun outside of basic training. Shit hits the fan when Harp makes a snap judgment and fires a drone strike — long story short, he disobeyed orders to rescue 38 soldiers, killing two Marines in the process. Understandably, this makes him a pariah among his comrades. As penance, Harp is deployed to the frontlines at Ukraine, where he’ll see actual combat up close.
Enter Captain Leo, played by producer Anthony Mackie. For the duration of Harp’s probation, Leo will be Harp’s commanding officer. The kicker: Leo is a highly classified top-of-the-line android, specifically designed to be the ultimate combat soldier and/or field diplomat as needs demand. Yes, this purely artificial AI is so advanced that he holds the rank of captain, and nobody else in all the armed forces — save for a scarce handful cleared to know of his true nature — is any wiser.
So, let’s take a step back here. On one side is the drone pilot who believes that emotion leads to biases, hesitation, errors in judgment, and so on. On the other side is a soldier who places tremendous value in human emotions, literally built from the ground up to recognize and display emotion, either for purposes of combat or to win hearts and minds. It’s the human who says that it’s better to be coldly logical, and it’s the robot who says the world might be a better place if we all had more empathy. That’s an intriguing subversion, and it’s genuinely compelling to watch the two switch positions as the plot unfolds.
See, this is a movie about an artificially intelligent robot designed to be the perfect soldier. It’s also a movie about a human character who finds himself completely out of his depth, with no information beyond what his superiors think he needs and no choice to do much of anything except obey orders. As such, it should come as no surprise that Leo may not be 100 percent reliable. Even so, the reveals and plot twists play out in some neatly compelling ways, with some welcome surprises here and there.
There’s some genuinely good stuff in here about the nature of AI, particularly with regards to the topic of automated soldiers and remotely piloted drones in modern warfare. The film also has some elegant statements about the nature of collateral damage and the question of how many innocent lives could be deemed an acceptable loss in time of war. I might add that latter question is made even more potent by virtue of the transgression that got our protagonist in this mess to begin with.
But the film’s most central theme is in the ugliness of war. From start to finish, this movie is heavily preoccupied with the notion of war as a thing that has to be lived to be truly understood, and only those on the frontlines can ever truly know the toll that war takes. It’s an admirable statement, but the film just can’t sell it.
When you get right down to it, this is still a sci-fi movie with CGI robots. It’s a movie with heightened action sequences, physically impossible stunts, and laughably outrageous kills. (One character gets a flag javelined right through the sternum. Fucking seriously.) The central crisis involves a four-color archvillain trying to achieve world domination through stealing nuclear weapons. The film is being headlined by a name actor whom we all know and immediately recognize as Captain freaking America.
There’s a Hollywood sheen baked into the very premise of the movie, and it undercuts the film’s message at every turn. The filmmakers go on and on about the real-life horrors of war, trying to show it to us in gritty “cinema verite” detail, and they just can’t sell it. The setting and presentation are nowhere near immersive enough to make anyone forget that we’re watching a work of near-futuristic science fiction.
What might be even worse is the shitshow of a third act. It’s nothing short of embarrassing to see all the contrivances, improbabilities, and out-of-character actions thrown in to get the plot where it needs to be and keep the runtime within two hours. At the point when the Plot Convenience Fairy straight-up brings a character back from the dead during the climax, I pretty much gave up.
Yet even for all its numerous flaws, I can’t bring myself to hate Outside the Wire. The two central lead performances are great fun to watch, and I truly respect the ambition on display here. I appreciate the creative twists and turns here, even those undone by the subpar writing. The film works well enough as a breezy two-hour sci-fi suspense actioner, but it clearly tried — and failed — to be so much more.
If you want a film that does a far better job portraying the horrors of battle, the hard decisions to be made in wartime, and the place of remote drones in modern warfare, I’d strongly recommend Eye in the Sky from back in 2015.