Expectations can be everything. An otherwise good movie can be diminished or even ruined by going in with high expectations. Going in with low expectations, or none at all, can meanwhile elevate an otherwise middling movie into the realm of “pleasant surprise”. The latter is the case with Spectral, a sci-fi actioner that was quietly dropped onto Netflix just yesterday. Spectral was originally slated for an August release from Universal, but was dropped from the production schedule and later picked up by Netflix. So while the casual viewer scrolling through their Netflix que may stumble across it, take a look at the cover art and the “Netflix Presents” tag and expect something akin to a Syfy Channel original, what they’ll be greeted with when they hit play is actually a middle to low-tier studio release. It isn’t a summer tentpole movie with more money than God behind it, but it’s perfectly serviceable as sci-fi shoot ’em ups go, the kind of movie often dumped in between the summer headliners and the Christmas releases.
In the end, gaining this “surprise” factor is probably the best thing that could have happened to Spectral. In theaters, it would have come and gone in a week or two after a so-so box office and dismissive reviews. But as a movie you stumble across unexpectedly on a Friday night, it’s a fun ride as long you go in with your expectations low.
In the near future, the US is embroiled in a bitter war in Moldova (because surprise, the movie was filmed in Eastern Europe). Soldiers equipped with fancy new multi-spectrum goggles begin to see mysterious ghost-like entities, which soon turn lethal. To try and get a handle on the situation, the DARPA wunderkind who designed the goggles, and a great deal of the military’s shiny future-tech, is brought in to consult on the situation. Our scientist hero rides along on a Delta Force rescue mission hoping to catch a glimpse of the mysterious creatures, but he and the Deltas soon find themselves stranded behind enemy lines and surrounded by an invisible adversary that can kill with a touch.
The best arrow in Spectral‘s bow is the visuals, and you can thank Legendary Pictures for ensuring that the film has high degree of visual polish. The effects for the “spectrals” (we’re not allowed to call them ghosts) are distinct and never look cheap, and that quality can be seen prettymuch everywhere else. The sets, costumes, props and visual presentation as a whole is all rock solid; unremarkable in actual content, but certainly professional in quality. It helps that the formal elements are similarly deft, neither over-stylized or bland. You couldn’t tell that director Nic Mathieu has never directed anything before (at least if his IMDB page is to be believed) because Spectral feels like it has a deft, confident, workmanlike hand at the helm. The cinematography and editing are also fine, if also unremarkable.
Everything on the formal end of things is like that, really. Nothing bold or earth-shattering, but there’s an admirable sureness of purpose to everything. No one’s setting out to reinvent the wheel, just to build something sturdy and presentable. If absolutely nothing else, Spectral makes a very good extended demo-reel for every effects artist, set designer, prop designer, costume designer and virtually everyone else who worked on the look of the film.
The most notable name on the credits in terms of behind-the-scenes folks is JunkieXL himself, Tom Holkenborg. Unfortunately, Holkenborg’s score for Spectral is decent, but limited to unobtrusive swelling orchestral pieces. Don’t expect any of the squealing guitars and pounding drumlines that defined his work on Mad Max or Batman v Superman. The pattern continues: nothing distinctive, but also nothing outright bad.
Things begin to get a bit more questionable in the writing, however, especially in the first half. Some films wear their influence on their sleeve, but Spectral has its emblazoned across its shirt: Aliens. Spectral is an unapologetic riff on Aliens until about halfway through, to the point that it almost becomes funny. A crew of badass soldiers with a consultant in tow go into a mission and come up against a stealthy enemy that completely tears them apart while the consultant watches their helmet cams blink out one-by-one from in the armored command vehicle. The survivors try to escape but their vehicle crashes and they’re left in a desperate struggle for survival, joined by one or more children who’ve been surviving on their own in the middle of all this. Any of that sound familiar? Wanna bet that at one point one of the soldiers puts their helmet on one of the kids to try and cheer them up? Because you’d win that bet. How about that a piece of loading equipment seen early on is later used to fight the monsters? You’re on a roll!
Thankfully, Spectral gets a bit more unique in its second half, when the scope and scale of the thing suddenly inflate. What was previously about one band of soldiers fighting their way to an extraction point quickly becomes an all-out war between futuristic soldiers and ghosts (oh sorry, “spectrals”), and it’s at that point that Spectral starts to feel more like its own thing. To some, this may be a betrayal of what Spectral starts out as: a small, tense little action/horror kinda deal in the vein of Dog Soldiers or Pitch Black. But really, the kick into high gear sets Spectral apart, throwing you for a pleasant loop when the movie suddenly decides to get the proverbial party started. There’s lasers, everyone gets a cool helmet all of a sudden, they bust out some quadrupedal support robots, it goes a little nuts, and in a way that’s fun if you let it be fun.
But that sudden ramp-up aside, the writing in Spectral isn’t stellar. No one has much of a character or arc to speak of, even our main characters, and we’re asked to make several hefty leaps in logic. Did our hero really whip up enough impromptu laser weapons and cool looking armor to equip a small army in a few hours? Did he REALLY just use the phrase “reverse polarity” without any hint of irony? Like the visuals, the writing in Spectral doesn’t re-invent the wheel or blaze any new trails. But while the visuals are overall solid, the writing could use a few reinforcements.
Sometimes, just sometimes, it’s ok if a film doesn’t really innovate or tread new and exciting ground. Sometimes it’s ok for a film to just do what it does well, even if what it does is only kinda new. Spectral has one interesting concept to its name: soldiers fight ghosts (or ghost-like entities). And it uses that idea to build a solid, if unremarkable and often under-written, genre action flick. It’s a movie that will benefit greatly from being buried in your Netflix cue, to be put on on a slow evening with no expectations. Odds are it will be a bit more polished and high-end than you expect, and that pleasant surprise is just enough to carry the film’s weaknesses.
You should watch it if:
-You haven’t read this review and therefore have no idea what you’re getting into when you find it on Netflix.
-You don’t mind a lack of anything overly new or interesting as long as the presentation is sound.
You should avoid it if:
-The idea of a solidly constructed and presented film that has little room for innovation or originality sounds likely to bore you.