Netflix’s ‘Spectral’ Review: An action-packed sci-fi thriller with an unusual twist
A Moldovan city is under siege by supernatural beings, and only engineer Mark Clyne and his special-ops team can put the ghostly creatures down. That's the basic premise of Netflix's Spectral, and while it doesn't get much deeper than that, the gritty sci-fi flick does a good job of delivering some intense action sequences and heart-pounding scenes.
[Editor's note: Spoilers for Spectral ahead.]
Spectral is a small-screen feature with a big-screen feel. The film has beautiful cinematography with large, detailed sets and cool costumes, but a shallow story. It borrows from the pacing of video games, with the familiar ebb and flow found in virtually every first-person shooter storyline: Get this piece of tech to this location, defeat that swarm of bad guys, flip that switch, upgrade your weapons then boss battle.
The Verge's Tasha Robinson likened Spectral to a Gears of War meets Aliens mashup, and that pretty much hits the nail on the head. It's almost like Gears of Wars' Marcus and Aliens' Ripley got together and cooked up the script themselves.
There's a lot of good going on in Spectral, but a few major flaws as well.
A seasoned special-ops team trapped in a war-torn Moldovan city faces the most fearsome threat they've every come across: ghosts. None of the characters want to say the word, but one military general has a sneaking suspicion there's something supernatural going on. So he brings in an expert: DARPA engineer Mark Clyne.
Clyne is a brilliant inventor who specializes in cutting-edge tech. He created special goggles that allow our intrepid soldiers to see different spectrums of light — that's how they first spotted the ethereal blue-white beings, which are invisible to the naked eye. Now, Clyne is tasked with capturing a clearer image of the ghosts, but in order to do that he has to go into the field with his newly developed spectral camera.
Things go horribly wrong, of course, and nearly half of the special-ops team is cut down by a single ghost as the invisible wraith glitches and sputters across the battlefield, freezing the soldiers to death with its icy touch. Only Clyne's high-tech spectral cameras can track its movements, but it's not like that does any good — bullets pass right through it.
Whatever these things are, Clyne and the special-ops team quickly realize they are no match. The remaining soldiers pack up and head back to base, but are attacked by local Moldovan militants while en route. Their armored vehicles are disabled by an improvised explosive device, and the team is forced to go it on foot.
Spectral the video game?
This is where Spectral really starts to borrow from video games like Gears of War, where the characters lug around beefy weapons and slam into cover while laying down suppressing fire over and over again. The movie transitions from figuring out exactly what these ghostlike creatures are, to going full out survival mode — like literally, it feels like a survival mode from a video game. You know, the ones where endless waves of baddies attack until the player is finally overwhelmed. Think the Exo Zombies in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
Progressing through Spectral's storyline is like progressing through video game levels, each one increasingly more difficult than the last. After taking refuge in an abandoned factory, our hero discovers the apparitions have a weakness: iron. Clyne retrofits the special ops team's weapons and hacks together some new, very Gears of War-looking anti-ghost armor, and off they go into the fray, laying waste to dozens of the deadly specters as they make their way toward the inevitable boss battle. It's the quintessential weapons and armor upgrade that's become standard in first-person shooter video games.
When ghosts meet science
As it turns out, the ghosts aren't ghosts at all, but a byproduct of scientific innovation. And as Clyne aptly points out, "If someone made them, they don't escape the laws of the world. Nothing does." Armed with this knowledge and their new anti-ghost guns, the boss battle begins.
The special-ops team holds off the onslaught of baddies as Clyne and CIA agent Fran sneak into the science facility to, literally, flip a switch that will shut the whole thing down. While much of Spectral feels like a video game, this "get to the control room" mission acts as the film's pinnacle.
A few harrowing scenes later, Clyne successfully turns off the machine that controls the ghouls, who evaporate into dust after the connection is severed.
Spectral has beautiful sets that feel reminiscent of Black Hawk Down, and truly fantastic costumes that look like they were ripped directly from the Gears of War showroom floor. The film's color and graininess provide a compelling portrayal of a war-torn Moldova, and the special-ops team's tactics and weapons manipulation afford a genuine military feel.
Spectral is essentially a sci-fi war movie in the vein of Edge of Tomorrow, and while it does feel like the script was taken straight from a video game, it's still an enjoyable and entertaining watch.
The film gets repetitive pretty quickly, with the same scenes being played out over and over on an increasingly larger scale. There's essentially no plot and no character development, or any real character depth for that matter. Gaping plot holes riddle the story, which really only plays on one level: action.
The few important story details that exist are revealed in lazy back-and-forth dialogue, with one character asking a poignant question and another painstakingly explaining its answer. Nothing feels organic in Spectral; everything is forced.
The only real main character, Clyne, has no real motivation except to stop the "threat." He was drafted in because of his technical expertise, then finds himself stuck in a tumultuous situation he never really intended to be a part of. Clyne operates on a single plane and feels shallow and ill-conceived, passing through the movie on autopilot.
Spectral is a great film for fans of sci-fi and war movies, and especially gamers who like Gears of War, Call of Duty, Halo and the like. It'll almost certainly never win any awards, but it's still worth a watch if you're in the mood for a good ol'-fashioned shoot-'em-up flick.