(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.