Distribution Service: Netflix
MPAA Rating: R
USCCB Rating: NR
Reel Rating: 3 out of 5 reels
Disclaimer: The following review contains spoilers.
Outside the Wire tries to be many things: a gritty commentary on the reality of war, an examination of American interventionism, a robot-gone-bad sci-fi thriller, an old school apocalyptic drama, and much more. None of these tropes are fully fleshed out. Yet there is still enough action and occasional insight to fill a Saturday afternoon, even if it may make you think twice about using Alexa to order your groceries.
In 2036, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is still raging, and the United States has deployed troops to halt the advance. Lt. Thomas Harp (Damson Idris) is an accomplished drone pilot who disobeys a direct order and fires on a suspected enemy launcher, killing two marines that were pinned down nearby. He claims this was to save the rest of the platoon from death but is still punished by being sent to the frontlines. Harp is chosen for a special mission by Captain Leo (Anthony Mackie) to go “outside the wire” and bring down Victor Koval (Pilou Asbæk), a violent warlord inches away from controlling several Soviet-era nuclear weapons. Before they leave, Leo reveals that he is a top-secret government android. “I’ll give you two minutes to deal with it,” he barks in military fashion.
Harp complies but throughout their mission tries to understand his superior. “Do you feel pain?” He asks. “Of course I do,” Leo smiles. “How else could I empathize?” By far the best aspect of Outside the Wire is Mackie’s brilliant performance. He never acts in a typical robotic fashion. He jokes, curses, and even comments on the attractiveness of Harp’s girlfriend. His seems to genuinely care for the oppressed people of Ukraine, risking his existence multiple times to save unnamed civilians. Yet despite all this, Harp is rightly skeptical. Spiritually, Leo is no different than a toaster, and gradually Harp discovers his suspicions may be correct.
Early in their Orphean odyssey, Leo tells Harp he was chosen because he can “think outside the box.” “You were right,” Leo tells him, about firing the missile. As the film enters the third act, the plot becomes increasingly muddled. They are crossed and double-crossed by various informants. In the confusion, Leo convinces Harp to remove his tracker in case the Army tries to abort the mission, violating Steve Woznick’s famous adage to “never trust a computer you can’t throw out a window.” Without reasons to believe Leo, the Army, the Ukrainians, or the Russians, it becomes more and more difficult for Harp to do the right thing. Leo is perfectly comfortable breaking protocol (which, oddly enough, his programming allows), insisting he is doing so “for the greater good.”
I often tell my students that “the Devil tempts evil people with evil but good people with good.” Harp will not commit treason for money or power but might be convinced if he believes humanity is under threat. It’s a classic moral dilemma that even the greatest saints face. John Vianney, who famously would hear confessions sixteen hours a day, once felt God was calling him to reduce his workload because he was not spending enough time in prayer. However, he was able to discern this was Satan’s vain effort to stop him from saving souls. It is possible to rightly go against the orders of a parent, civil authority, or even priest, but a conscience must be well-formed according to the faith first to be trustworthy.
Fortunately, Harp discerns the truth of Leo’s plans. After killing Koval, Leo plans to fire a nuclear missile at Washington DC, perhaps killing hundreds of thousands, but forcing an end to the war. This would seem to violate the most basic of Asimov’s Laws yet Leo’s programming is able to justify the action in the same way Harp rationalized killing the Marines. Fortunately, Harp is not swayed and decides to stop Leo even at the cost of his own life. It is a potent demonstration that no AI will ever replace the human soul. Like the Golem of medieval Judaism, any attempt humans make in creating a being in their own image will end in destruction.
Outside the Wire, though often hard to follow, is reasonably entertaining, and provides a few keen observations about the fog of war and the folly of trusting technology. Despite constant cries that mankind deserves destruction, we always seem to avoid elimination in both our literature and in reality. We have a fail-safe that is far greater than any robotic law, that the “gates of the netherworld will never prevail” against us. Whenever times are bleak, mankind can see the rainbow and be assured of that promise.
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