Swedish filmmaker Mikael Håfström has directed everything from supernatural horror (1408, The Rite) to throwback action flicks (Escape Plan), and his latest film for Netflix, Outside the Wire, has the director dipping his toes into the realm of science-fiction. But the film is actually a war movie, one that attempts to tantalize audiences with both sci-fi action and broad philosophical questions about the muddy morals of war. Interesting ideas are at play here, but Outside the Wire struggles to deliver on either front.
In the near future, soldiers are gradually being replaced by robots called Gumps, a name that only becomes funnier when you hear actors screaming lines like “Send in the Gumps!” or “Where the f*ck are the Gumps!?”. But Gumps are barely the pinnacle of where technology has brought us in this world – the true marvel is Leo (Anthony Mackie), a fully functional android military officer. Under his command is Thomas Harp (Damson Idris), a disgraced drone pilot who was reassigned after disobeying orders, which lead to the deaths of two marines. The two are on a mission to stop a Russian terrorist named Viktor Koval (Pilou Asbæk) who’s attempting to set off nukes.
The two soldiers make for an interesting dynamic. In a neat role reversal, Thomas is depicted as the cold and stone-faced one, while Leo – despite not actually being human – is more expressive and empathetic. Thomas, who has fought a war from the comfort of home behind a screen, cares little for collateral damage so long as its the easiest way to complete a mission. As he pilots his drone and deploys devastating missiles, his face shows that he’s a bit bored, even when the screams of fellow soldiers fill his headset. Leo, on the other hand, constantly cracks jokes to the poker-faced Thomas and prefers to resolve conflicts with as little violence as possible. The film is at its most engaging when the two are debating human emotion – Thomas believes that they lead to mistakes, while Leo thinks that humans actually aren’t emotional enough.
The film tackles some broader sociopolitical themes as well, mainly through Thomas’ arc as he truly experiences war for the first time. In one of the film’s more inspired locations, Thomas and Leo arrive at an orphanage where children play with recommissioned Gumps and drawings of drones dropping bombs line the walls next to colorful fish and princesses. Seeing the consequences of the U.S. military’s interventions in other countries, and facing what his own part in it has been, might change Thomas’ views. When he shows concern over a potential attack on the U.S, he’s pressed on it: Shouldn’t they just be collateral to him? Or does he only make exceptions for American lives? Thomas’ detachment from the very real cost of his actions is a familiar sentiment.
Leo also muses on why the U.S would choose him as the face of the military. “My sleeve may say U.S, but my face conveys neutrality. Keeps people calm,” he tells Thomas. Leo is a constant mystery throughout the film, and Mackie plays him with a knowing smile that doesn’t ever let you know what he’s really up to. What exactly he is, why he was created, and why he’s chosen Thomas for this mission are questions that Outside the Wire constantly dangles in front of the audience. Unfortunately, the eventual answers are far less intriguing than the questions themselves, and character motivations wind up feeling generic and uninteresting.
It certainly doesn’t help that the overall plot is stale, and the entire film plays like a Call of Duty knockoff. The video game comparisons make sense – one of the film’s writers, Rob Yescombe, previously worked on the Crysis franchise, as well as The Division. Most of the action is staged like a first-person shooter, ducking in cover, firing, and ducking again, and Mackie’s barked orders at Thomas are liable to give older viewers Modern Warfare 2 flashbacks (“Ramirez! Take point!”). But the film fails to capture the intensity of those kinds of games, and much of the action is dull and uninspired. It’s coherent enough, but there’s not a single sequence that’s particularly impressive or memorable. The bland greys and browns that make up the movie’s color palette, as well as a score that’s completely flat, do Outside the Wire no favors either.
While Outside the Wire‘s more interesting moments are when it seems to be questioning the entire notion of war and military overreach, it still makes sure to celebrate the U.S military anyway. By the end of the film, they are still the good guys saving the day, and whatever qualms the movie has with drone warfare, it doesn’t bother to place regular, on-the-ground war crimes under the same scrutiny. For a film that’s seemingly trying to emphasize that humankind and empathy are worth advocating for, it certainly feels lifeless.