After being pulled from Universal Pictures film slate this year, sci-fi war film Spectral was recently acquired by Netflix and has now been released as a Netflix Original.
Directed by Nic Mathieu, and starring James Badge Dale, Emily Mortimer, and Max Martini, Spectral follows DARPA scientist Clyne (Dale) sent to war torn Moldova in Eastern Europe to aid a special forces squad. His highly confidential mission is to identify a mysterious enemy invisible to the naked eye, but detectable through his advanced military grade headsets, and help stop them. As the team move deeper into the graveyard of a city ravaged by war, they encounter a force never seen before, with nothing to stop them.
It’s never a good sign when a films release date is constantly pushed back, but it’s even worse when they get pulled from the slate all together. However thanks to streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, there will always be a place for titles with little confidence to find a home, and that is just what has happened here. There are two sides to Spectral, on one side we have the visually gratifying aesthetic, and on the other a completely bonkers story let down by so many things.
If Spectral has one thing going for it, it’s the gritty visuals. The shell of a city pillaged by conflict makes a fitting setting for any war film. The film, shot on location, contains a skeletal landscape full of landmines and bullet holes which is really something to look at, and boy does it pay dividends. To fit in alongside the aesthetics of the surroundings is an abundance of nifty practical effects created by the the sublime WETA workshop, and some decent VFX from their digital studio as well. Overall it evokes a very strong Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare vibe, which is nothing to be ashamed of. However what good is style without substance?
The answer to that question is obviously it is not, and Spectral is incredibly light on substance. Disposable paper thin characters that carry as much emotional weight as a feather in the wind are in abundance throughout. Even the likeable Max Martini is reduced to a special forces leader who simply barks orders. His squad, who I assume we are supposed to feel for when swiftly dispatched by supernatural enemies, are nothing more than toy soldiers with zero personality simply set up to be knocked down. This results in well directed and exciting action scenes that are just pretty to look at. Admittedly the story is just nuts, but it’s the kind of nutty story you’re happy to go along with just to see where it takes you. Unfortunately the journey is wrought with predictable actions and convenient events that take the fun away from what little the film has going for it. Also I’ve never seen a character so akin to MacGuyver than James Badge Dales character Clyne, he can make any weapon with seemingly just a screwdriver.
It’s not hard to see why Spectral was pulled from the film slate, but you can also understand why Netflix picked it up. All the signs of a promising futuristic war film are there, it looks great and it sounds good, but the hollow characters and predictable plot fail to inject any depth to proceedings. The result, a rather shallow story with great visuals. That being said it is still better than cinematic turkeys Gods of Egypt and Suicide Squad, so it has that going for it.