Starring: James Badge Dale, Emily Mortimer & Bruce Greenwood
Directed by: Nic Mathieu
Distributed by: Netflix
Release Date: December 2016
Running Time: 107 mins
Synopsis: When an otherworldly force wreaks havoc on a war-torn European city, an engineer teams up with an elite Special Ops unit to stop it.
A Netflix original movie, Spectral caught my eye when I was browsing for something new to watch on the service and its intriguing trailer looked like a cross between Predator and Ghostbusters. Set in war-torn Moldova, US troops use state-of-the-art technology to tackle the local insurgents, but mysterious ghost-like glitches begin to appear on their equipment. When DARPA researcher Mark Clyne is brought in to investigate further, they discover a swarm of deadly apparitions that can kill a man with a single touch. Trapped in the conflict-zone with a small group of survivors, Clyne must use all of his technical ingenuity to discover a way to defeat an enemy that he cannot see and cannot touch.
With a setting and plot reminiscent of Black Hawk Down, omnipotent hunters akin to Predator and the Ghostbuster-esque theme of using technology to defeat supernatural threats, it is clear that Spectral has a number of different influences from classic cinema. Despite this, it still manages to carve out its own distinct personality thanks to a third-act twist that changes the audience’s understanding of the threat. While it would be easy to categorise Spectral as a horror movie because of its supernatural aesthetic, it rarely goes for the scare factor and instead evokes a sci-fi action tone as the enemies attack en masse in dramatic fashion. The film has more common with modern war movies than it does the traditional ‘haunted house’ genre, avoiding any real jump scares moments to instead demonstrate the devastating body count left in the wake of the ‘ghosts’.
James Badge Dale plays the lead protagonist, Mark Clyne, and I was largely unfamiliar with his work before this movie – although he appeared in World War Z in a small role. He is extremely likeable as the leading man, bringing an authentic “everyman feel” to his performance of Clyne. Joining him is actress Emily Mortimer, who acts as the female lead and unfortunately gets little to do aside from assisting Clyne and mothering two orphans they find on the battlefield. While she seems a bit redundant to the plot, she does inject some femininity into a male-orientated cast and is a better stereotype to use than the butch female soldier that typically appears in these types of films. Luckily the movie avoids the cliché love interest trope. The ensemble of soldiers are relatively disposable with most of them dropping like flies during in the initial conflict scenes, but there are some character actors in the cast that look familiar from other films, such as Max Martini and Bruce Greenwood.
Despite the low budget feel to the movie, the use of real locations in Budapest gives the film a gritty atmosphere and makes the conflict scenes feel all the more authentic. The special effects are also quite impressive, as seen during the scene where the spectral ghosts give chase to the survivors in the streets, although the climactic sequences do become a bit CGI-overloaded at times. The film has a relatively high body count with soldiers dropping dead after being touched by the ghosts, although there is actually very little violence and blood. The film isn’t afraid to pull its punches though, and there is a bleakness that overshadows the action, particularly when it comes to the arbitrary nature of death. The film’s underlining message that “war is bad” is somewhat muddied midway through the movie, especially when the true origins of the spectral ghosts are revealed.
The film’s final act is the weakest part of the film and feels tonally inconsistent with what has occurred before as the troops are able to develop weapons to take the fight back to the spectral ghosts in one last-ditch attempt to save the world. After the more intimate action of the initial two-thirds, this sudden switch to a big-budget fight sequence with the fate of the world at stake feels disorientating. There are some moments of implausibility where viewers have to just accept the situation. For example, Clyne manages to ‘MacGyver’ up some new tech for the troops to use against the spectral ghosts, including some robotic dogs! Sure, he’d been established as a tech genius earlier in the film but it seemed to be far too easy for them to build a whole arsenal out of leftover scraps in a matter of hours. The truth behind the spectral ghosts was also a slight disappointment as it forces a real-world scientific explanation in, just when I’d gotten accustomed to a more spiritual concept. However, the film does a great job at maintaining the mystery throughout much of its running time.
Spectral is a fun popcorn action movie, aimed at a mid-teen audience and perfectly suited to the Netflix platform. It has a genuinely tense atmosphere, but never actively crosses over into scary. The story and core mystery surrounding the spectral ghosts are extremely compelling to watch, and the initial two-thirds of the film where the humans are outnumbered and outgunned are easily the strongest parts. Even though the movie lacks any “big names”, the entire cast do a tremendous job and James Badge Dale was very likeable in the lead role, and I wonder if a more recognisable name would have been a distraction. A surprisingly original foray into the military sci-fi genre, Spectral is an enjoyable watch and is definitely worth adding to your Netflix list.
Score – ★★★ ½
Spectral is currently available to stream on Netflix.