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Spectral (2016) Review

Spectral is a 2016 science fiction-thriller about a team of soldiers who face off against a supernatural race of beings.

A lone soldier in a dark and crumbling part of an Easter European city finds himself in a blown-out building seeing a strange distortion in his specially-designed high-spectral goggles. Before he can get a good look, the wisp of white streaks toward him and cuts right through him, killing him instantly. When the goggle’s inventor, a scientist named Clyne (James Badge Dale) is called in to investigate, he’s let in on the top secret footage and is told it is not an isolated attack. Other’s are dying, too.

The corpses are burned on the outside but frozen on the inside. Theories abound, from spirits to advanced camouflage. Clyne says he needs better info, and volunteers to head into the battlefield, where a civil war is beginning to tear apart the country. Joining a squad of tough-minded, loyal soldiers, who worry he is a liability, they take to the streets and what they find is unlike anything they suspect.

Directed by Nic Mathieu, Spectral, now on Netflix, was meant to be a theatrical release before dropped from the schedule and picked by the streaming service. For whatever reason, the film, backed by Legendary Entertainment, is a good-looking military action film that borrows heavily from a number of films in the shooter and alien-themed genres, utilizing the popular FPS view. It dips into some light horror, but is mostly focused on its action as the bodies pile up.

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Like any in this genre, it’s the creativity and use of the creatures that sell the show. Think of the brilliance of the well-designed Xenomorphs in the Alien franchise or even Predator. Spectral indeed has a clever set of monsters, ghostly bony humanoids that are invisible unless viewed through Clyne’s spectral imaging equipment. Some of the early scenes are especially effective as the squad encounters them in an abandoned apartment complex. It’s a chilling, even frightening sequence that conjures memories of James Cameron‘s Aliens, though lacks the superior sense of drama and tension (there’s even a Ripley-esque non-military woman, played by Emily Mortimer, protecting young children who have survived on their own).

That’s essentially the main issue with Spectral. Behind its high quality production and good performances, is the familiarity and its ever-present feeling of in-authenticity that weighs it down. While everything looks good, the embattled city seems like a set, the destruction a little too clean and perfectly-arranged. The visual effects are good of course, but it lacks a certain grittiness that might have made this more grounded.

Spectral, 2016 © Netflix

That said, there’s plenty of entertainment here. Snagging some influence from the zombie apocalypse genre as well, the movie works best as a survival thriller and even gets science smart in its second half, thankfully avoiding sticking with a theory that is introduced early that seems like how it was going to play out, though the sentiment and its anti-war message is well-earned. Clyne is a refreshing “hero” in that he’s a scientist in a film full of soldiers, though Dale isn’t a strong presence. Strategy is based on applying newly-learned laws of the physical world that really elevate the story. And the soldiers themselves are not just grunts, but invested in the science as well, with none of them a stereotype beyond being, well, movie marines.

Sure, the dialogue gets a little obvious, with plenty of clichéd exchanges. The film also can’t resist a few all-too-familiar set pieces and tropes with Bruce Greenwood, playing the base commander, even standing above the troops and offering up a motivational speech before taking on the over-powered enemy. While the film plays with a few themes, including the dangers of advanced technology, ultimately, it can’t quite meet it’s potential, despite being a good time. A solid premise and some decent action keep this just above average.

Spectral (2016)

Film Credits

Director: Nic Mathieu
Writers: Ian Fried, John Gatins
Stars: Emily Mortimer, Clayne Crawford, Max Martini
Genre: Science Fiction, Thriller
Language: English

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