Sunday, December 18, 2016

War Zone Supernatural? Spectral Gets So Much Right!

The Good: Good direction, Decent performances, Moments of character
The Bad: Very derivative plot, Mostly thinly-defined characters, Pacing
The Basics: Spectral puts a military scientist into a war zone against an enemy that initially appears supernatural and threatens to escape the region to menace the entire world!

While much of the world is out at the movie theaters making Rogue One (reviewed here!) the predictable blockbuster fans knew it would become and the rest is binge watching The OA (reviewed here!) or the second season of The Man In High Castle, I figured that it was time to catch up on my genre Netflix movies. To that end, I put on Spectral. Spectral, at first blush, seemed like it might be a retread of The Darkest Hour (reviewed here!), but the longer the film goes on, the more it seemed like a mash-up of Aliens (reviewed here!) and Ghostbusters.

Spectral puts a military force in a creepy, burned-out Eastern European country that is plagued by a civil war and something resembling ghosts. The protagonist is a DARPA scientist whose military technology initially made visible something invisible to the naked eye. The film spends a lot of time creating a realistic sense of tension and political consequence associated with having a military scientist in the field and that manages to draw the viewer in to Spectral. While the film is structured very similarly on the plot front to Aliens, Spectral takes itself very seriously. There is no banter; the soldiers are professionals.

Opening in the ruins of a city while bombs go off in the city, the soldier Davis refuses to wait for his backup and instead heads into the dark to confront his enemy. With his night vision goggles, he sees something that his eyes cannot and a moment later, that apparition kills him. Clyne is a military scientist who scavenges Tetracine from a junk yard for a weapon capable of liquefying solids. Clyne, the scientist who designed the hyperspectral goggles that the U.S. Military is using in Moldovia is shipped out to Eastern Europe to figure out what is going on in the Moldovian civil war. In Moldovia, General Orland shares camera feeds from U.S. soldiers that show entities on the recordings, like the one that killed Davis. Paired with CIA Agent Fran Madison, Clyne is shown the footage from Davis's death and when pushed for an analysis (the CIA believes the enemy has cloaking technology of some form), Clyne wants to go into the field to get better evidence.

After Clyne mounts a more sophisticate version of his hyperspectral camera onto one of the military vehicles, Clyne, Madison, and Dagger Team One are sent into the field to recover Utah Team, a squadron that was captured by insurgents. In trying to recover the team, the military recovers a survivor of the carnage within the building where Utah Team was kept, but most of Dagger Team is slaughtered by what now appears to be an entity. The locals believe the entities are the manifestations of the horrors of war, but when the survivors of the rescue mission hole up in an abandoned metalworks building, they discover there are multiple entities and they may have a weakness. Inside the metalworks, the military finds two children, whose father recognized that iron filings stop the entities, but they soon find themselves overrun by the invisible enemy that threatens to take out insurgents, Americans and civilians alike.

Spectral builds initially well as a scientific exploration of a horrific series of deaths near the battlefield before degenerating into an all-out battle between humans and the entities. The film does a good job of wrapping up the nature of the adversary and making the threat credible and creepy. But, the film gets lost at the beginning of the third act and that makes Spectral feel a little erratic.

Similarly, Spectral looks amazing and has good performances led by James Badge Dale. Dale plays a credible DARPA scientist-turned field soldier and he finds the right balance between intellectual and physical in the role to make him feel very real. But Clyne is truly the only well-defined character in Spectral. Emily Mortimer does not consistently hold her accent as Madison and Bruce Greenwood is very much underused as General Orland. The result is a film that looks good and has one solid character to watch while slowly piecing together a very creepy and sensible story.

Spectral follows a plot progression almost identical to Aliens and the film elicits a groan when children appear on screen (I wonder if it is around the same time Newt pops up in Aliens . . .). But despite that, Spectral is creepy and then horrific. The action component to Spectral is out of balance with the original cerebral quality of the film and the realism of the military and scientific organization of the film.

Despite the balance problem, the special effects are incredible and the movie is solidly entertaining, which makes for one of the better Netflix-produced films.

For other Netflix exclusive films, please check out my reviews of:
True Memoirs Of An International Assassin
I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House
Special Correspondents
The Fundamentals Of Caring
The Ridiculous 6


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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