Multi-layered Outside the Wire is part action thriller, part intimate drama
To say that Netflix is leaning into its recent forays into feature film-making is an understatement. The streaming giant announced earlier this month that it will be releasing a new feature film on its platform every week in 2021. Among the streamer’s January releases was Outside the Wire, in which Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson/Falcon in the MCU, Synchronic) stars as an android military officer who teams up with a disgraced drone pilot to ward off a nuclear attack.
(Some spoilers below, but no major reveals.)
Director Mikael Håfström is a Swedish director best known for the Oscar-nominated 2003 film Evil, and 1408, a solidly spooky, haunted hotel/psychological horror film starring John Cusack and based on a short story by Stephen King. So Outside the Wire is something of a departure for him: partly a military action thriller, and partly a psychological study of its two central characters. It’s the latter aspect that most strongly bears the hallmark of Håfström’s artistic sensibility. Per the official synopsis:
In 2036, America serves as a peacekeeping force and human troops on both sides are supported by robot combatants called Gumps and drone pilots monitoring skirmishes from thousands of miles away. But after headstrong drone pilot Lieutenant Harp (Damson Idris, Snowfall) disobeys a direct order to intervene in a conflict, the Army deploys him to a military outpost to confront the human costs of his button-pushing.
Harp’s expectations of guarding a fence are upended when his new commanding officer Captain Leo (Mackie) announces plans to infiltrate the demilitarized zone and apprehend Viktor Koval (Pilou Asbæk), a warlord who intends to launch a network of dormant nuclear weapons. Soon, Harp learns that his theoretical experience as a drone pilot means little out on the battlefield under enemy attack—especially after discovering that Leo is an A.I.-enhanced supersoldier whose strength, speed and demand for results promise to turn his real-world education into a trial by fire.
Mackie is the big-name star here, but the story is told from Harp’s perspective, opening with his decision to deploy a missile to take out what appears to be an enemy launcher. His action kills two young Marines, but saves 38—a tradeoff he deems acceptable. His superiors disagree, given his disobedience of their direct order, and decide that Harp needs some first-hand experience in a war zone, rather than piloting drones from a safe distance.
As soon as he arrives at his new posting—a US base of operations in Ukraine—Leo recruits him on a secret mission, telling him he’d hand-picked Harp precisely because he showed he could think for himself in a tight situation. But Harp gradually begins to realize that Leo’s true objective might be something quite different than preventing Koval from gaining control of Cold War-era nuclear missile silos.
Håfström told Ars that he was drawn to the project in part because he’d never done a science fiction film that takes place in the future (in this case, in 2036). He also liked the various layers of the film. “It’s a sci-fi movie, it’s a buddy movie to a degree, it’s a war movie,” he said. “It deals with interesting questions about modern warfare and AI, and the responsibilities we need to take when we develop these things. There were a lot of layers that I found intriguing in this material.”
Given that the film is set in our near future, Håfström had to straddle a fine line when it came to creating a world that is still quite recognizable as our own—just a bit more technologically advanced. However, he also brought in some decidedly “retro” elements for his android super soldier, just for contrast. “Leo is writing on an old typewriter and puts things in file cabinets, because he says that’s the best way to avoid hackers,” said Håfström.
There are military robots dubbed “Gumps,” in addition to Mackie’s advanced biotech android, and the Gumps have not easy integrated with the human soldiers, who are resentful of the very notion that they could be replaced by a machine. “Somebody thought that a vending machine could do a soldier’s job,” one soldier gripes, right before he and several others begin beating and harassing a Gump—until Leo intervenes. According to Håfström, that scene was added later, after a discussion with Mackie about the latter’s character.
Those discussions also yielded less of an emphasis on the typical butt-kicking android soldier with superpowers one associates with these kinds of films. The point is made repeatedly that Mackie is capable of emotion and compassion—perhaps more, at least at the beginning, than his human partner, Harp. “We had a lot of great discussions about how he’s a cyborg, this biotech creation, and what does that mean?” said Håfström. “What approach do you have to life, to death, to feelings? We decided to make him as human as he can possibly be. We took away the superhero stuff and made him very grounded.”
That said, there are still several well-choreographed action sequences, and Mackie’s athleticism was an added benefit, since he insisted on doing many of the stunts himself. “Anthony is a very fine actor, a very intelligent man, and he’s also one of the most physically capable actors I’ve worked with,” said Håfström. As for the inevitable showdown between Leo and Koval, “We tried to do it like a dance, like a ballet, just to keep it visually interesting,” he said.
While he sought to make the science fiction elements as credible as possible, for Håfström, the biggest challenge was ensuring that viewers felt emotionally invested in the two main characters, particularly Harp’s personal journey. “He is the one who takes us on this journey, into this landscape,” said Håfström. “For him, warfare has been a TV situation, sitting in the Nevada desert making decisions about life and death on the other side of the planet. His realization of what he’s actually doing, and the consequences of his actions, is very much part of his arc. He’s a very different guy in the final scene.”
“These guys are not heroic in a simple, old-fashioned way,” said Håfström, adding that his film “is really asking important questions about taking responsibility for your own actions. In the end, to me, it’s very much an anti-war movie.”
Outside the Wire is currently streaming on Netflix.