Skip to main content

They're trapped between life and death and they can’t find peace.

Spectral
(2016)

(SPOILERS) Straight-to-Netflix, and you can see why Universal opted not to give it a theatrical window, since everything from the filming location (Budapest) to the leads, to an untested features director (Nic Matheiu comes from commercials), suggests less-than-stellar fare. On that level, Spectral is a reasonably accomplished production, but it also has very little going for it in terms of a vital spark of originality; you could mash up Aliens, The Keep and soldiers-under-siege flicks (Black Hawk Down) and probably come up with something more enticing with one hand tied behind your back. There’s some promise here when the initial explanation for the invisible force attacking our troops has a less supernatural (but no less far-fetched) reveal, but the overall takeaway is of a repetitious threat structure lacking the distinctiveness to mark it out.


You get the impression writer Ian Fried (with John Gatins and George Nolfi; Fried and Mathieu get a story credit) was aiming for something spookier and more sinister, what with the talks of Moldovan “ghosts of war”, but instead Mathieu supplies generic-looking urban warfare, à la Battle Los Angeles, with computer game standard CGI spectres and little in the way of tension, as we don’t care very much for the characters and have little investment in the scenario.


James Badge Dale is good enough in a thin lead role, but he always is, and his scientist Clyne even gets a decent piece of deductive logic whereby he dismisses others’ assertions regarding the threat wiping out all-comers by observing that everyone is biased to see one thing or another, and explain it accordingly (of course, being a scientist, it turns out there’s a scientific answer, which is very convenient, and necessarily absolves him of this trap). There’s also the veneer of scientific underpinnings, with Clyne’s talk of Bose-Einstein Condensates. It sounds big and clever, possibly too much so; there’s a distinct possibility that non-minded viewers (such as myself) won’t be able to tell the difference between that and bafflegab (particularly since the plot also throws in 3D printing and pulse weapons; it’s a bit of a mélange).


Emily Mortimer is miscast as a CIA contact, but in fairness, she has little to work with. No one does. The Delta Force squaddies (or grunts – no offence) are much of a muchness, with a couple of actors making an impression (including the current Martin Riggs, Clayne Crawford, and Max Martini), but they’re essentially rehearsing the out-of-their-depth elite fighting unit, thrown into a conflict with an enemy that hopelessly out matches them and requiring the outsider they initially mock (Ripley, or Clyne) to pull through for them. There’s even a bonding scene with some little urchins, while the hyperspectral imaging goggles are an inverse flip (in that the good guys are using them) on Predator-vision.


Occasionally, there are nice little details that suggest a mystical means of fighting the supernatural force (trails of iron shavings used to ward off the creatures) until they’re revealed to have a scientific explanation. But, if the assertion of one of the kids that the ghosts are trapped between life and death but can’t find peace turns out to be true, in a prosaically SF fashion, Clyde’s assessment that “Maybe there are things science can’t answer” is desperately trite, and the dramatic finale in which the rest of the experiments try to escape their bonds is lethargic in its standard-issue escalation.


Spectral is highly disposable and wholly lacking in personality. So much so, it seems inclined to throw around its sympathies in the name of a desire to please. Thus, it gives the brave scientist the mantle of coming up with ingenious solutions, but also nurses a very Black Hawk Down hat-doffing to the stalwart military types (“They don’t stop do they?”: “I don’t think they know how”), the same ones we last see heading back to the site of the experiment with the DoD, who obviously have overt weaponisation in mind. Of course, this is a picture that doesn’t even question the crack team’s presence in Moldova – they have the right to be there, they’re goddam Americans. All the better if they’re somewhere that baits the Russian Bear.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

He made me look the wrong way and I cut off my hand. He could make you look the wrong way and you could lose your whole head.

Moonstruck (1987)
(SPOILERS) Moonstruck has the dubious honour of making it to the ninth spot in Premiere magazine’s 2006 list of the 20 Most Overrated Movies of all Time. There are certainly some valid entries (number one is, however, absurd), but I’m not sure that, despite its box office success and Oscar recognition, the picture has a sufficient profile to be labelled with that adjective. It’s a likeable, lightweight romantic comedy that can boast idiosyncratic casting in a key role, but it simply doesn’t endure quotably or as a classic couple matchup the way the titans of the genre (Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally) do. Even its magical motif is rather feeble.

Move away from the jams.

Aladdin (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was never overly enamoured by the early ‘90s renaissance of Disney animation, so the raves over Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin left me fairly unphased. On the plus side, that means I came to this live action version fairly fresh (prince); not quite a whole new world but sufficiently unversed in the legend to appreciate it as its own thing. And for the most part, Aladdin can be considered a moderate success. There may not be a whole lot of competition for that crown (I’d give the prize to Pete’s Dragon, except that it was always part-live action), but this one sits fairly comfortably in the lead.

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

Bleach smells like bleach.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)
(SPOILERS) I’d like to be able to say it was beyond me how Clint’s misery-porn fest hoodwinked critics and the Academy alike, leading to his second Best Picture and Director double Oscar win. Such feting would naturally lead you to assume Million Dollar Baby was in the same league as Unforgiven, when it really has more in common with The Mule, only the latter is likeably lightweight and nonchalant in its aspirations. This picture has buckled beneath the burden of self-appointed weighty themes and profound musings, which only serve to highlight how crass and manipulative it is.

I’d kill you too, Keanu. I’d kill you just for fun, even if I didn’t have to.

Always Be My Maybe (2019)
(SPOILERS) The pun-tastic title of this Netflix romcom is a fair indication of its affably undemanding attributes. An unapologetic riff on When Harry Met Sally, wherein childhood friends rather than college attendees finally agree the best thing to be is together, it’s resolutely determined to cover no new ground, all the way through to its positive compromise finale. That’s never a barrier to a good romcom, though – at their best, their charm is down to ploughing familiar furrows. Always Be My Maybe’s problem is that, decent comedy performers though the two leads may be – and co-writers with Michael Golamco – you don’t really care whether they get together or not. Which isn’t like When Harry Met Sally at all.

You're reading a comic book? What are you, retarded?

Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut (2009)
(SPOILERS) It’s a decade since the holy grail of comic books finally fought through decades of development hell to land on the big screen, via Zach Snyder’s faithful but not faithful enough for the devoted adaptation. Many then held the director’s skills with a much more open mind than they do now – following the ravages he has inflicted on the DCEU – coming as he was off the back of the well-received 300. Many subsequently held that his Watchmen, while visually impressive, had entirely missed the point (not least in some of its stylistic and aesthetic choices). I wouldn’t go that far – indeed, for a director whose bombastic approach is often only a few notches down from Michael Bay (who was, alarmingly, also considered to direct at one point), there are sequences in Watchmen that show tremendous sensitivity – but it’s certainly the case that, even or especially in its Ultimate Cut form and for all the furore the change to the end of the story provoked,…

You're always sorry, Charles, and there's always a speech, but nobody cares anymore.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
(SPOILERS) To credit its Rotten Tomatoes score (22%), you’d think X-Men: Dark Phoenix was a travesty that besmirched the name of all good and decent (read: MCU proper) superhero movies, or even last week’s underwhelming creature feature (Godzilla: King of Monsters has somehow reached 40%, despite being a lesser beast in every respect). Is the movie’s fate a self-fulfilling prophecy, what with delayed release dates and extensively reported reshoots? Were critics castigating a fait accompli turkey without giving it a chance? That would be presupposing they’re all sheep, though, and in fairness, other supposed write-offs havecome back from such a brink in the past (World War Z). Whatever the feelings of the majority, Dark Phoenix is actually a mostly okay (twelfth) instalment in the X-franchise – it’s exactly what you’d expect from an X-Men movie at this point, one without any real mojo left and a variable cast struggling to pull its weight. The third act is a bi…

They went out of business, because they were too good.

School for Scoundrels (1960)
(SPOILERS) Possibly the pinnacle of Terry-Thomas’ bounder persona, and certainly the one where it’s put to best caddish use, as he gives eternally feckless mug Ian Carmichael a thorough lesson in one-upmanship, only for the latter to turn the tables when he finds himself a tutor. School for Scoundrels is beautifully written (by an uncredited Peter Ustinov and Frank Tarloff), filled with clever set pieces, a fine supporting cast and a really very pretty object of the competing chaps’ affection (Janette Scott), but it’s Terry-Thomas who is the glue that binds this together. And, while I couldn’t say for sure, this might have the highest “Hard cheese” count of any of his films.

Based on Stephen Potter’s 1947’s humorous self-help bestseller (and subsequent series of -manship books) The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship (or The Art of Winning Games without Actually Cheating), which suggested ungentlemanly methods for besting an opponent in any given field, gam…

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.