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…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

I fear I’ve snapped his Gregory.

Twin Peaks 3.14: We are like the Dreamer.
(SPOILERS) In an episode as consistently dazzling as this, piling incident upon incident and joining the dots to the extent it does, you almost begin to wonder if Lynch is making too much sense. There’s a notable upping of the pace in We are like the Dreamer, such that Chad’s apprehension is almost incidental, and if the convergence at Jack Rabbit’s Tower didn’t bring the FBI in with it, their alignment with Dougie Coop can be only just around the corner.

Now you're here, you must certainly stay.

The Avengers 4.1:The Town of No Return
The Avengers as most of us know it (but not in colour) arrives fully-fledged in The Town of No Return: glossier, more eccentric, more heightened, camper, more knowing and more playful. It marks the beginning of slumming it film directors coming on board (Roy Ward Baker) and sees Brian Clemens marking out the future template. And the Steed and Mrs Peel relationship is fully established from the off (albeit, this both was and wasn’t the first episode filmed). If the Steed and Cathy Gale chemistry relied on him being impertinently suggestive, Steed and Emma is very much a mutual thing.

He’s a good kid, and a devil behind the wheel.

Baby Driver (2017)
(SPOILERS) Pure cinema. There are plenty of directors who engage in superficial flash and fizz (Danny Boyle or JJ Abrams, for example) but relatively few who actually come to the medium from a root, core level, visually. I’m slightly loathe to compare Edgar Wright with the illustrious likes of Sergio Leone and Brian De Palma, partly because they’re playing in largely different genre sandpits, partly because I don’t think Wright has yet made something that compares to their best work, but he operates from a similar sensibility: fashioning a movie foremost through image, supported by the soundtrack, and then, trailing a distant third, comes dialogue. Baby Driver is his most complete approximation of that impulse to date.

How dare you shush a shushing!

Home (2015)
(SPOILERS) Every so often, DreamWorks Animation offer a surprise, or they at least attempt to buck their usual formulaic approach. Mr. Peabody & Sherman surprised with how sharp and witty it was, fuelled by a plot that didn’t yield to dumbing down, and Rise of the Guardians, for all that its failings, at least tried something different. When such impulses lead to commercial disappointment, it only encourages the studio to play things ever safer, be that with more Madagascars or Croods. Somewhere in Home is the germ of a decent Douglas Adams knock-off, but it would rather settle on cheap morals, trite messages about friendship and acceptance and a succession of fluffy dance anthems: an exercise in thoroughly varnished vacuity.

Those dance anthems come (mostly) courtesy of songstress Rhianna, who also voices teenager Tip, and I’m sure Jeffrey Katzenberg fully appreciated what a box office boon it would be to have her on board. The effect is cumulatively nauseating though, l…

Cool. FaceTime without a phone.

Sense8 Season One
(SPOILERS) The Wachowskis do like their big ideas, but all too often their boldness and penchant for hyper-realism drowns out all subtlety. Their aspirations may rarely exceed their technical acumen, but regularly eclipse their narrative skills. And with J Michael Straczynski on board, whose Babylon 5 was marked out by ahead-of-its-time arc plotting but frequently abysmal dialogue, it’s no wonder Sense8 is as frequently clumsy in the telling as it is arresting in terms of spectacle.

I frequently had the feeling that Sense8 was playing into their less self-aware critical faculties, the ones that produced The Matrix Reloaded rave rather than the beautifully modulated Cloud Atlas. Sense8 looks more like the latter on paper: interconnecting lives and storylines meshing to imbue a greater meaning. The truth is, however, their series possesses the slenderest of central plotlines. It’s there for the siblings to hang a collection of cool ideas, set pieces, themes and fascina…

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)
(SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell, as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick.

Evil Bill: First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted: Then we take over their lives.
My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reeves in the summer of ’91 (inflatio…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

A man who doesn't love easily loves too much.

Twin Peaks 2.17: Wounds and Scars
The real problem with the last half of the second season, now it has the engine of Windom Earle running things, is that there isn’t really anything else that’s much cop. Last week, Audrey’s love interest was introduced: your friend Billy Zane (he’s a cool dude). This week, Coop’s arrives: Annie Blackburn. On top of that, the desperation that is the Miss Twin Peaks Contest makes itself known.

I probably don’t mind the Contest as much as some, however. It’s undoubtedly lame, but it at least projects the season towards some kind of climax. If nothing else, it resolutely highlights Lynch’s abiding fascination with pretty girls, as if that needed any further attention drawn to it.

Special Agent Cooper: You made it just right, Annie.
I also like Heather Graham’s Annie. Whatever the behind the scenes wrangles that led to the disintegration of the Coop-Audrey romance (and it will be rather unceremoniously deconstructed in later Coop comments), it’s certainly the …