Spectral the Movie

Spectral - 2016

What it lacks in brains and dialogue it tries to make up with speed and atmosphere

Spectral Netflix movie Dec 2016

Ghost Technology

Cribbing from other films is a Hollywood tradition (and Spectral helps itself to slabs of Black Hawk Down, District Nine, Battleground Los Angeles, World War Z, Edge of Tomorrow and most obvious of all, James Cameron's Aliens). But the real problem in Spectral is the very limited amount of character development given the cast. Our hero scientist (played by James Badge Dale) is never given a past, or a relationship with anyone except technology. For the most part, everyone is either fodder for the spooky creatures or are running feet trying to get away from them and into the next scene. Emily Mortimer (as CIA agent Fran Madison) is along for the whole ride but it isn't clear what she brings to the story except that she is our translator for the local language. This makes perfect sense for awhile, but once we're fighting our way into the strange base where the creatures are generated (literally, electrical power is important to their abilities) it is only Hollywood-logic that makes our only adult female be required to personally facedown the creatures in their santum-santorum.

But it is just as well that she is there, since Dr. Clyne (who has continually insisted that there can be a scientific answer for everything, especially these creatures which are related to something called the "Bose-Einstein Condensate") are wired up in a way that vaguely recalls the Matrix plus 3-D printing. At that point, Fran and Clyne have to make a moral decision about what they find. But first they have to talk about it, and we wouldn't hear any of this if Clyne was standing in the laboratory all by himself.

Spectral seems like a made-for-TV Netflix film, but was actually intended for a full feature release by it's original production company*, but instead premiered from Netflix as a streaming movie. It is a often imaginative sci-fi war film in which American troops in a European country (Moldova) are trying to deal with the internal war between two competing regimes, but then the Americans run into a far deadlier threat: ghostlike-beings that seem unstoppable. The strange creatures (called "aratare" for awhile) are vaguely human and can swoop about speedily, and are particularly intent on killing soldiers, which they do by merely touching them.

The special effects in Spectral are strongly defined around military hardware and the ghostly creatures, and a lot of this movie is the battle action between these two elements, often presented in video game modes. Though we're supposed to be experiencing all this warfare in a foreign land with a terrorized local populace, there are very few actual citizens in the place, and the city looks like a ruined ghost-city all on its own.

After Dr. Clyne begins toying with spectral light projection and modifying the soldier's weapons, the film has a vaguely unfunny Ghostbusters visual feel to it, with the guns becoming larger and larger as the soldiers take the battle into the stronghold of the creatures (which turns out to be more like a factory than fortress). Most of the movie has a grim and drab color palette and it would have been a relief for someone on screen to smile or for someone in editing to lose the color filtering and allow natural lighting. There's a lot of camera movement and we get endless shots of things like slo-mo boots sliding among iron filings (iron becomes an important part of the story) but there is too much slow motion and not enough story.

Underwritten, with limited character construction, and repetition with its main feature of soldiers vs ghost-creatures, Spectral has some fine elements of imagination but lacks solid plot mechanics, and in this department is as whispy as the white spectres haunting the movie.

* Legendary Entertainment, Mid-Atlantic Films, and Netflix.

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Original Page January 16, 2015 | Updated July 6, 2021