The best one-word description of Netflix’s entrance into the world of original content creation would be “headlong.” They went from being a library to a studio seemingly overnight in 2012 and by 2016 were launching over 100 self-produced series and films per year. The number has only grown since, with sci-fi titles making up a sizable portion of the catalog. That kind of quantity was always going to put a strain on quality. It has too. But it actually seems like Netflix has made its peace with it. Certainly, they release a respectable amount of prestige feature-length material each season. Namely documentaries and traditional dramas. But they also crank out a lot of mediocrity. That part of their collection is a huge, unwieldy body of work that often seems like a case study in gleeful underachievement. Sadly, much of their sci-fi lives there.
“Outside the Wire,” out now on Netflix, is a speculative military adventure starring Anthony Mackie and Damson Idris. Mackie plays a prototype cyborg soldier on a mission to avert a nuclear attack. And Idris is the disgraced drone pilot sent to back him up. The setting is Eastern Europe, and the battlefield is populated by humans and robots alike, which makes the plot a fitful fusion of Cold War tropes and “just around the corner” technological possibility. It isn’t the strongest set-up, let alone the most novel. But with Mackie involved, I had high hopes. Seeing him physically overpower multiple attackers made me wistful for the recently canceled “Altered Carbon” series, and his lead role in the second season. I like Mackie in just about everything he does. But, as good as he is, even he seemed unsure about how to reconcile “Outside the Wire’s” mismatched ingredients.
The gaps and inconsistencies start to pile up pretty quickly, and right from the start. Forgive this quick digression, but one of the things that always gets me worrying about a military depiction is when the filmmakers don’t bother to get the haircuts right. I know it’s a small detail, but a commanding officer with a blow-dried thicket of Hollywood locks sends me the signal that I’m in for a potentially careless ride. One where other, bigger details might be similarly mismanaged. Like why in the world a bank would be open and fully staffed in the completely empty downtown of a besieged city. Or why a top-secret, presumably priceless cybernetic warrior would be allowed to set his own agenda and pursue it unsupported. “Outside the Wire” is full of moments that ask for this kind of forgiveness from the viewer. It’s too much. The action sequences are well-constructed when they do happen, but the thinness of the overall story is not served by their rarity. And the clunky, Training Day chemistry between Mackie and Idris might have been designed to highlight their biological divide. But it doesn’t work either, even in that generous context. Their dialogue is a hand brake on whatever momentum the sporadic fighting provides.
“Outside the Wire” wants to hammer home the idea that war is hell. Full of hard calls and harder costs. Mackie’s gruff wisdom makes that clear throughout. And Idris’ character is constantly reminded that his distant, insulated participation has consequences he doesn’t fully understand. I believe commentary on American involvement in foreign conflict and the moral ambiguity of drone deployment is both necessary and welcome. And that the larger discussion of just how much military advantage ours, or any, nation needs to secure peace deserves all the screen time we can give it. That’s why it’s such a shame that “Outside the Wire” just waves at these topics as they go by. The message of the film, unfortunately, gets lost in the mess.
Netflix definitely did not hit what they were aiming at with this one. But don’t let that discourage you or your love of science-fiction. They certainly won’t. Even if Netflix doesn’t have what you are looking for right now, you won’t have to wait long for something new to try.