There is unquestionably an argument to be made that we don’t need another movie telling us that building sentient robots—especially robots to fight wars—is a bad idea. We have seen the notion play out multiple times, and so often with absolutely horrific consequences. The problem with my saying that we don’t need the reminder is that we almost certainly do. You would think we didn’t need a reminder that Nazis are bad or that the KKK is evil or that as a republic we should abide by the will of the voters, but those reminders have proven absolutely essential over the past couple weeks. The violence we in Washington, D.C. (and the threatened violence for the near future) is clear proof that people have to be told that Nazis are bad over and over again.
So, setting Nazis in the Capitol aside for as long as seems prudent (feel free to check the news as you read this to ensure that we still have a country), the new movie directed by Mikael Håfström, “Outside the Wire,” serves as a reminder that there are serious—real—questions that have to be answered when we send robots to do our dirty work. The movie may feature a near future which doesn’t quite exist, but one we should be concerned about nonetheless.
Featuring a screenplay by Rob Yescombe and Rowan Athale, “Outside the Wire” is a somewhat frustrating affair. This isn’t because the movie isn’t good, but rather because there are so many moments when it could go from being good to being exceptional, and fails to do so.
It all starts out simply enough here and with a different, but related, moral question to the robot one above. We meet Air Force drone pilot, Harp (Damson Idris), who is soon disobeying an order, firing when he’s been told to hold off. Naturally, this makes his bosses worried that maybe flying drones in the Ukraine from a seat in the US has caused him to be too removed from the deaths he causes.
This is a serious issue. “Outside the Wire” isn’t the first movie to look at it and it certainly won’t be the last. We as a nation haven’t really come to grips with what we’re asking and what it means. If war becomes a game, don’t all those who play it operate at some level of decreased moral conscience, perhaps something akin to a robot?
As a punishment for disobeying the order, Harp ends up getting sent to Ukraine, where robots are indeed deployed to fight. He is assigned to Leo (Anthony Mackie), an advanced robot that looks human (the others look like… well… robots). Although, ostensibly, Harp is there to learn what death means, his new boss operates in a similar—but more extreme—fashion than he, Harp, has to this point. For Leo, somewhat like Harp, it is all about the end goal and achieving it by any means (read: “number of casualties”) necessary.
This is where things get tricky for “Outside the Wire” and where I may gloss over some of the narrative of the film because it’s too intricate, too spoilery, and too far-fetched & confusing. Håfström, like James Cameron and so many others before him, wants to deliver a movie that is both truly exciting and exceptionally moral. We are to love watching the fights take place, particularly the robot-enabled stuff Mackie’s Leo does, while we also recognize that if war doesn’t have an immediate human cost on the ground, the number of problems it causes are likely to grow massively.
The movie largely, but not fully, succeeds on this level. Håfström, beyond a doubt, gives us the part where war is hell and shows how the problems it causes affect so many more than just the direct combatants. One cannot watch this movie and walk away with the belief that an endless cycle of war, one where we constantly up the ante in how we kill folks, is going to bring anything but disaster for humanity. At the same time as that, we get to watch as things blow up real good and fight sequences engage the viewer from the safe distance of our sofas. The moral stuff is definitely still there at the end, but some of the parallels fall away.
At some point, and to its detriment, “Outside the Wire” decides it needs to do everything it can to fool the viewer. Yes, there are good guys and bad guys, but there are also good guys who are bad and good guys who look bad but maybe are good even if they don’t want to admit it and at least one or two other variations thrown in there as well. The twists have twists and Leo’s objectives seemingly (but not necessarily) shift as the movie continues and we learn more. Harp is caught up in something he does not understand, and the audience isn’t in a better position to get it either.
Certainly, watching the tale play out, one begins to wonder if Håfström and company were making it up as they went along. I would have to see the movie at least one more time and physically diagram out the plot to be sure that it worked. Following the climax, I have the sense that it doesn’t. The plot ends up feeling as though it turns in order to bring about the action sequences the movie wants to offer rather than developing the action organically (no pun towards computers/AI/robots intended).
Still, “Outside the Wire” mostly works. This is because Mackie is excellent as Leo and Idris’s Harp brings a huge, much needed, dose of fish-out-of-water humanity to the proceedings. The moral questions are present and worthwhile. One would be hard-pressed to watch the movie and get the wrong message, but it is possible to receive no message at all.
It’s out this Friday on Netflix and can definitely serve as a distraction from your “oh my god, why are there so many Nazis in this country and why does one political party not want to do anything about them” doomscrolling.
photo credit: Netflix