Netflix UK film review: Spectral
Josh Slater-Williams | On 14, Dec 2016
Director: Nic Mathieu
Cast: James Badge Dale, Emily Mortimer, Bruce Greenwood, Max Martini
Watch Spectral online in the UK: Netflix
If there’s something strange
In your conflict zone,
Who ya gonna call?
James Badge Dale!
Of the various films in the Netflix Original roster to date, Spectral, the debut feature of director Nic Mathieu, stands out as considerably more expensive-seeming than its relatively modest brethren – although who knows how much Adam Sandler’s future excuses to go on paid vacation will end up costing? A Legendary Pictures production acquired by Netflix after the film parted ways with Universal earlier this year, Spectral is a big action movie with a tinge of sci-fi to it, anchored by an appealing collection of character actor or perennial supporting players at its centre (James Badge Dale, Emily Mortimer, Stephen Root and Bruce Greenwood among them).
War-torn Moldova in Eastern Europe is the film’s setting, where a mysterious entity has been documented via the technologically advanced goggles of a slain US soldier. Clyne (Badge Dale), the inventor behind the “hyper-spectral goggles” is called in by General Orland (Greenwood) to assist with the investigation into the soldier’s mysterious death. Soon enough, Clyne finds himself accompanying an armoured vehicle squadron into war-torn streets, where they encounter the specimen responsible. Yes, rather than suspected insurgents with hi-tech camouflage, it would appear that the city is filled with entities able to pass through walls and kill half of the soldiers with but a single touch. And they can only be seen with Clyne’s fancy goggles and cameras.
A movie in which soldiers fight ghosts is kind of a cool, high concept premise. The problem is that the film never really gets any more exciting than that premise. The film is like 13 Ghosts crossed with 13 Hours, except you’re likely to find a more thrilling experience in an episode of The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo.
As competently handled as the whole affair is, it’s always just that and never more. Badge Dale’s a decent enough lead in the vein of James Spader in Stargate, although he’s been far more interesting to watch in the likes of Iron Man 3 and The Lone Ranger. The ever watchable Mortimer, meanwhile, isn’t given all that much of interest to work with, while a bunch of ‘that guy’ actors, such as Louis Ozawa Changchien (Predators, The Man in the High Castle), can’t inject any flavour into the assorted cannon-fodder grunts.
Speaking of grunts, Spectral also suffers from feeling far too in debt to other military-based sci-fi offerings. For one thing, the story is almost a beat-for-beat repeat of James Cameron’s Aliens, while the visual grammar of both the action sequences and the designs is heavily inspired by the video game likes of Gears of War. Something the film is missing that those have in spades is a degree of palpability to the violence. Despite the rampant slaying on display, Spectral is a curiously bloodless affair, almost in the vein of its ghostly figures.
Although a third act reveal serves to explain away the supernatural element of the threat, there’s always this nagging sense that Spectral might work a lot better if Mathieu or the multiple credited writers had sought to play up the horror element that comes with the territory the film flirts with. Aliens works because it not only satisfies action junkies, it also unnerves and frightens them at the same time. The opening attack upon a solitary soldier in Spectral comes close to unsettling, but the rest of the conflicts are built on a dull rhythm of guns blazing and missing, with the occasionally compelling slo-mo visual. And while the effects work behind the spectral threats is reasonably impressive at times, the designs themselves are as lacking in personality as the soldiers they wipe out.
Spectral is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.