Review by Katie Lynch
Outside the Wire (Mikael Håfström, 2021) is a sci-fi action flick set in the near future during a civil war in Ukraine. The protagonists are an emotionless drone pilot (Damson Idris), detached from the horror he inflicts upon the people on the ground, and a robot man (Anthony Mackie) who believes humans aren’t emotional enough. Both are part of the US military whose alleged purpose in Ukraine is to mediate the various forces in conflict. There was a lot of opportunity for this movie to make meaningful points about contemporary issues like race, toxic masculinity, the effect of rapidly developing technology on our lives, philosophical questions about the value of human life, the ethics of war, and the role the US plays in foreign conflicts. The script falls short in this regard, forcing the audience to follow a complex story with little incentive or reward.
The film opens on a fairly unoriginal scene in which the drone pilot defies direct orders, sacrificing the lives of 2 soldiers to save 38 others. As punishment he gets sent to Ukraine to fight on the ground to learn about the realities of war and the value of human life. A frustrating element of this movie is that it never lands on a point of view regarding the drone pilot’s decision to sacrifice the few for the many. It makes very confusing points about the US involvement in the conflict, at first presenting itself as against US interference, but undermining this through the ‘twist’ ending. Even the discussions of human emotion, toxic masculinity and the realities of technology are completely undercut and muddled by the end of the film.
Outside the Wire tries to do far too much, and would have benefited from a focus on one of the themes it tries to tackle. Unfortunately, the resolution only serves to provide a baffling end to a movie whose priority is ‘epic’ robot fighting scenes, which ultimately fall flat without a meaningful narrative to support them. There are some beautiful scenes and settings, particularly in the third act, but it’s not enough to make up for the clumsy storytelling.
The film’s attitude toward discussing important topics is epitomised by its treatment of race. Mackie’s character tells the drone pilot that his creators made him look like a black man rather than an “all-American” blond-haired, blue-eyed man, because “[His] sleeve might say US, but [his] face conveys neutrality.” This essentially meaningless exchange is the first and last time the film mentions race, and without any follow through, it feels like the white director and white writers only brought it up because they felt as though it were an elephant in the room. It really isn’t.
It’s a shame that a movie with so much potential drowned itself in too many big themes and failed to pack an emotional punch, a common theme among many factory-pumped Netflix original films. Audiences deserve better than Outside the Wire. Even Outside the Wire deserves better than Outside the Wire.