Outside the Wire — Is This Cyberpunk?
Outside the wire is one of the newest futuristic action flicks from Netflix of 2021. Released a mere two weeks into the new year, this sci-fi action thriller stars Damson Idris (Black Mirror) as Lt. Thomas Harp, a drone pilot who makes a difficult call resulting in a reassignment as punishment. There he meets Captain Leo, played by Anthony Mackie (Altered Carbon, Avengers: Age of Ultron) who also was one of the producers for the film. Directed by Mikael Hafstrom, Outside the Wire also stars Pilou Asbaek (Ghost in the Shell, Game of Thrones) as one of its villains . At first glance, this film doesn’t seem to be Cyberpunk at all. But is it? Or is there more to this action movie than meets the eye?
A Military-Focused Plot
When I started watching this movie I had no idea it was actually science fiction, and indeed, it doesn’t really market itself as such. I was gearing up for another gritty hard-as-nails military action film, a bit like Expendables lite. It definitely started off as such, with a firefight resulting in some difficult decisions and consequences that leads our main character, Lt. Thomas Harp, to be reassigned as punishment to Camp Nathaniel, a US base of operations set in the Ukraine, and must report to Mackie’s character, Captain Leo.
All of the story in Outside the Wire takes place with its main characters exclusively military, civilians, refugees, rebels, or humanitarians who deal with the military. However, about 30 minutes in, we suddenly discover that Captain Leo is an incredibly realistic android, a prototype made by the military to resemble humans as closely as possible. We are also casually shown human militia denigrating military robots with gimbals as heads and humanoid forms that allow them for ruthless stone-cold combat.
Science Fiction or Purely Action?
Other than Leo and the military robots, however, there is no other science fiction present in the film at all. A Russian nuclear powerplant that becomes important later in the movie uses old soviet-era tech, and the drones the military use are present-day technology (with their very human operators working much like present-day drone pilots would).
The Ukraine setting feels very Eastern Europe. No neon streets, no dark rain, none of the stereotypical cyberpunk elements. No punk elements at all, really.
Can Androids Be Trusted?
The one thing that doesn’t rule it out of the cyberpunk moniker completely is Mackie’s character, Leo. When Harp meets Leo at Camp Nathaniel, he is quickly apprehensive of Leo’s non-human nature. This leads to some interesting banter between action scenes, as Harp grabbles with what it means that his superior officer is also property of the American Military who should be serving his human creators. The question of whether Harp can trust Leo quickly becomes paramount, and lingers ever present as an unanswered question as the two work together to carry out their mission. The audience is also left wondering if Leo can be trusted, a question which is later answered very bluntly near the end of the film.
Overall Thoughts: A Missed Opportunity
Outside the Wire had a lot of the right ingredients that could have made for an excellent movie. Unfortunately, it seems like these elements are only half-baked, leaving the final product to end up being just another action movie with many of its potentially interesting questions unanswered and its characters undeveloped. While Harp’s character is likeable enough and Leo’s character keeps us guessing his true intentions, we don’t see Harp’s character develop much throughout the film, and Leo’s character ultimately underwhelms. Once his final motives are revealed, they feel uninspired and disappointing, when we look at all the things they could have focused on instead, such as whether robots or androids deserve the same treatment as humans do, which serves as a metaphor for prejudice and racism in so many other science fiction films of its kind. Outside the Wire decides instead to lean on well-choreographed fight scenes and special effects, but without the big budget that most other science fiction films have, the effect is simply underwhelming. Where is the world-building? Why don’t we feel more for Leo’s character than we do? Anthony Mackie definitely could have delivered a more moving performance, if he had been given the script to do so. They should have at least told us if Leo Dreams of Electric Sheep.
Final Verdict: Decidedly Not Cyberpunk
With what at first glance would be the possible makings of a cyberpunk film–a humanlike android, military robots, and a human main character questioning his android partner’s motives, Outside the Wire is definitely not Cyberpunk. There are no real punk or low life elements to speak of, nor are there any megacorporations or oppresive dystopias to speak of in this film. Instead we have a very near to present US military outfit acting in Ukraine and carrying out what amounts to another cold war action film with a subtle whiff of science fiction. However, it was entertaining enough to be worth watching, with decent performances and good action sequences. I would give this film a 6/10.