Movies about drone war pilots tend to focus on similar goals – killing enemies on a video screen is far from living a life on the ground and in person, and the collateral damage is unsustainable. Good Kill (2014) and Drone (2017) both show pilots discovering these truths and facing the film’s ultimate moral dilemma as to whether or not drone strikes are a valid tool in war. Netflix’s latest original film, Outside the wire, approaches the subject with an approach that is more about entertainment than deep reflection, but it also takes a much bolder stand by putting its foot down and insisting that drone warfare is absolutely bad unless damn it good is.
It’s 2036, the near future, and civil war in Eastern Europe has disrupted the region forcibly. U.S. forces operate as peacekeepers, bombing targets hundreds of kilometers away, but drone pilot Thomas Harp (Damson Idris) crosses a line when he does not obey a direct order. His action leaves two Marines dead but may have saved another thirty-eight, and while landing him in hot water, Captain Leo also spots her (Anthony Mackie), who then recruited him for his own mission. Harp is tossed in boots on the ground mission to stop a nuclear launch and it’s an eye-opening adventure for him as he sees both the collateral damage from drone strikes and the calluses that go into their clearance. Oh, and Leo is a fourth generation Android.
Outside the Wire pretends to have a point of view, but ultimately has everything else and instead delivers smaller action thrills alongside its muddled topics. director Mikael Håfström (Shanghai, 2010) works solid enough here with action sequences captured from the carnage and sequences that handle the thrill and the occasional cool beat, but the script from Rowan Athale and Rob Yescombe is nowhere near as focused.
Harp’s initial decision to launch a hellfire missile against a target that knows it would also kill US soldiers is portrayed as a bad name at first, but it is honored. His awakening to the collateral damage they caused is violent, but he shakes it off. His firsthand introduction to the terror of combat is daunting, but he, well, he never really gets any better at it. Harp is a character who ultimately doesn’t have a bow – he’s a cocky “pilot” whose pro drone strikes, and almost two hours later that’s pretty much unchanged.
As boring as Harp is as a character, he stays out of the Wire’s focus, though the film contains more interesting ideas and characters throughout. A criminal is portrayed as something wrong, but he is nothing, and although the presence of robotic soldiers named Gumps is important enough to point out in an introductory text drawing that they hardly have any window dressing throughout the film. Shifting the narrative in the third act is just to negate the ideas of the film even further before ending things on the worst of notes.
Mackie’s Android soldier is almost as empty as a construct. His secret is limited only to harp and higher levels, and while his methods are atypical of the other soldiers, he actually communicates and tries to build relationships with potential enemies in the field, so radically! – He deserves respect for his rank and results. Leo has off-book plans fueled by his own conflicting thoughts, but as with the issues surrounding drone attacks, the film is unable to address the issues that arise from it.
Even so, Outside the Wire is an action film, and it does it well enough in that regard. Once the harp is dropped in the midst of the ground forces, viewers are gifted with a handful of intense combat sequences and shootouts. Mackie can unleash some fighting skills too, and although editing and F / X help them to a significant degree, they’re still fun. Sofiya (Emily Beecham), the head of the resistance and another interesting character the movie doesn’t have time for, also manages to pull off a pretty nifty takedown with just her coat.
Action films are usually not known for their serious concerns and questions. Maybe Outside the Wire deserves credit for being brought up here, but it’s all for free. The film loses interest in answers as quickly as real military personnel forget the victims of collateral. Instead, the focus is on a rather boring character who is ineffectively moving through the story on the way to the comical conclusion that “people can do better”. But hey, the action is pretty good.