The director Mikael Hafstrom’s “Outside the Wire,” the latest Netflix combat film set in an exotic location, offers empty-calorie action in a less than fulfilling, Cold War-inspired robotic revolt narrative. The film’s redundant intertitles — several characters repeat the same information later — explain the outbreak of a civil war taking place in the year 2036 in Eastern Europe. U.S. troops, with the assistance of robotic soldiers called Gumps, serve as peacekeepers against the region’s ruthless criminal warlord Viktor Koval (Pilou Asbaek). Harp (Damson Idris), a dispassionate drone pilot, is ordered to the war zone as punishment after his cold calculation led to the deaths of two Marines. Paired with a top-secret android, Leo (Anthony Mackie), as his superior officer, he embarks on a mission to stop Koval from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Like several sentient-robot films (“The Terminator,” “Ex Machina”), “Outside the Wire” presents an android-as-slave metaphor, except this time with a Black actor. While the Gumps are physically and verbally abused by their human comrades, Leo is equally dismissed as “not one of us.” And Harp, a Black soldier without the discipline to say “sir” to his superiors, is assigned to what amounts to a robot overseer in Leo. While this metaphor serves as the thematic backbone to Leo and Harp’s mission, the incurious script by Rowan Athale and Rob Yescombe leaves the conventional subject threadbare.
The cinematographer Michael Bonvillain maps the shaky-camera style he used on “Cloverfield” — what Roger Ebert at the time called “Queasy-Cam”— onto the firefights in “Outside the Wire” to bewildering results. The film’s opening siege, for instance, depicting a platoon’s battle to recover a fallen comrade trapped in a crossfire, is spatially uncertain. Grainy establishing shots of the skirmish offer little visual information other than its location on an expressway. Without viewers knowing where, and at whom, the soldiers are firing, the onscreen action is rendered indecipherable. Mackie’s quirky performance — Leo ends every order to Harp with an uncomfortable smile — is likewise baffling. Under the guise of looming worldwide destruction, the film builds to an overwrought finish involving unsurprising betrayal, and even more undramatic twists. “Outside the Wire” is a futuristic war movie that lacks imagination in the present.
Outside the Wire
Rated R for extreme robot-on-robot violence. Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes. Watch on Netflix.