The trailer for the new Netflix movie “Outside the Wire” makes it look like a by-the-numbers sci-fi action movie, but the filmmakers are aiming for something more ambitious, telling a story about the perils of drone warfare and artificial intelligence.
What happens when you drop a drone operator onto the battlefield?
The movie opens in the year 2036. American troops are deployed to Ukraine as the nation is engaged in hostilities with Russia. A young drone operator named Thomas Harp (Damson Idris) disobeys orders to launch a missile into the middle of a firefight. He ends the conflict but kills a pair of American Marines on the ground. His rationale? “There were 40 men on the ground, and I saved thirty-eight.”
Rather than try him for murder, the brass decides to send him to the base whose men he killed and let him experience life on the ground. He’s paired with a top-secret, next-generation android called Capt. Leo (Anthony Mackie, Falcon from the Marvel movies) and sent on a mission, wait for it, outside the wire.
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Leo has identified the real problem as Koval (Pilou Asbæk from “Game of Thrones”), a gangster who’s trying to get access to nuclear codes so he can control the weapons left behind after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s either reassuring or distressing that Soviet weapons technology is holding up after 50 years with zero maintenance.
The most interesting part of what’s left is Harp’s attempt to reconcile his previous decisions as a drone pilot with the reality of life on the ground. Leo is one cold officer, and the dynamic between teacher and pupil here will remind a lot of viewers of the Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke relationship in “Training Day.”
There’s also the issue of Leo being an android and whether his artificial intelligence can be relied upon to stay within the boundaries of his original programming. The robot’s motivations aren’t clear throughout the movie, and Harp has to decide what’s real and what’s a threat as the two warriors fight their way through the ruined city.
Military movies love the theme of the emotionally disconnected drone operator, recently seen in “Good Kill” starring Ethan Hawke and “Eye in the Sky” with Helen Mirren. “Outside the Wire” takes the theme a step further by making its protagonist face the reality of combat on the ground.
The movie features a broad array of battle androids (“Gumps”) and robot dogs who are readily identifiable as non-human support gear, but Leo is the only identified android who can pass as human.
Will we be able to trust future silicon warriors? Will humanoid soldiers stay within the bounds of their programming or will they eventually commit to a robot agenda?
Fans of the “Terminator” movies already know the answer, but “Outside the Wire” raises those questions at a future moment when androids are just beginning to pass for human.
Co-screenwriter Rob Yescombe comes from a video game background (“Farpoint,” “Rambo: The Video Game,” “Crysis” series), but he and co-writer Rowan Athale want to bring classic science fiction ethical issues to light here rather than going for the popular pure action approach used in movies such as “John Wick” or “Extraction.”
Director Mikael Håfström, who was behind the Stallone/Schwarzenegger face-off in “Escape Plan” and the Chinese World War II-era epic “Shanghai,” is just as interested in character as action.
The core hook remains compelling throughout the movie: What happens to a drone operator when the bullets start flying for real? Would that experience make for better decisions or would it remove the emotional distance that makes those drones most effective? “Outside the Wire” delivers the action but hopes to make you think once the bombs stop falling.
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