Spectral (2016)

Seriously, if James Cameron’s name had appeared at the end of this flick…I wouldn’t have been surprised in the slightest. It’s EXTREMELY clear to me that first-time feature director Nic Mathieu has seen My Favorite Movie EVER, ‘Aliens’ (1986) at least once, as the overall aesthetic struck me as pure ‘peak’ Cameron; VERY nicely replicating the cool, smokey ‘worn-in technology’ look that he gave his best two movies, the aforementioned fantastic ‘Alien’ sequel and the severely underrated deep sea science fiction drama, ‘The Abyss’ (1989). And this is A-OK with lil ole me! I first got wind of ‘Spectral’ over a year ago, when it was announced as part of the 2016 line-up for one of the Big Cinema studios (Universal, I think), and I remember thinking the premise sounded interesting. Then…it vanished. Nothing. No further word. No promo material. No release date. It was gone…”like a virgin on prom night.”, as per Gary Busey in ‘Point Break’. I didn’t put any thought into it, after that first announcement…till it was (much) later announced that this crazy ‘Black Hawk Down meets Ghostbusters’ flick was being pulled ‘off the shelf’ and was now one of Netflix’ ‘Original Movies’. The initial speculation was that, because the original studio had shelved, then dropped, ‘Spectral’ from it’s upcoming line-up…that it MUST be just garbage. Probably just awful. Like those toxic Adam Sandler ‘comedies’ that pop up on the channel every now and then. Or ANY low-budget crap title by dumb-ass schlock director Uwe Boll. Suddenly, I was intrigued all over again. First starters, the idea of a military special forces team encountering a deadly supernatural being in the civil war-torn Eastern Bloc country of Moldovia is cool right off the bat. I’ve seen a couple other flicks, like ‘Deathwatch’ (2002) and ‘Outpost’ (2008), that had a similar ‘army fights supernatural’ idea and they both worked for me. I’m a sucker for a good military movie, and supernatural shit done well always works for me. So Netflix announced a Dec 9 online release of this curious, cast-aside movie, and I made note of that. I wanted to see just how bad this could be, that a major studio would fund it, with every intention of releasing it to The Big Screen, only to drop it all together, handing it off to Netflix to claim as their own. It may turn out to be an absolutely hilarious misfire shit-show of a movie…or it COULD turn out to be an enjoyable ‘hidden gem’. SO…on a lazy, snowed-in Friday night, after a lame-ass week on the job…my lovely girlfriend and I parked our sweat pants-enclosed asses on the couch…and fired up ‘Spectral’.
The flick opens with a lone Delta Force operator, moving stealthily through the smokey ruins of a civil-war ravaged city centre. Using a high-tech type of multi-spectrum goggles to move through the battlefield, this trooper unexpectedly encounters an eerie, sentient-seeming force, visible only in a certain spectrum of light, that kills instantly on contact…which it does. We then meet ‘Dr. Mark Clyne’ (James Badge Dale), a researcher at DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) in Virginia, who was the key inventor of the optics technology the US Special Forces are currently using for their part in the conflict. It was on a pair of these goggles, worn by the slain Delta Force trooper in the first scene, that evidence of a possible enemy technological ‘breakthrough’ on the battlefield was recorded. That recording is in need of analysis, so it’s brought to the equipment’s inventor…’Clyne’. It doesn’t take long for them to realize that the only way to get true answers, is to have ‘Clyne’ imbed with the troops and, using his technical ‘know how’, search out what the military believes to be an advanced form of adaptive ‘active’ camouflage, developed by the enemy and in need of serious exploitation. It doesn’t take them long, after they infiltrate the target area, to realize they’re up against something a lot more dangerous than cloaked enemy soldiers.
I was pleasantly surprised and impressed with ‘Spectral’ and as I was watching it, I couldn’t help but to wonder just what the hell it could’ve been that Universal Studios saw or didn’t see in the finished product that caused such an insulting lack of faith. Seriously, for a first-timer, this movie is NOT an embarrassment. I may be biased on this, as I loved how well director Nic Mathieu emulated (imitated?) the ahead-of-its-time visual style of ‘Aliens’. Unlike some others that have attempted a similar style of story and presentation, like ‘Doomsday’ (2008), here, the film-makers get it right, like nearly ‘carbon copy’ right. Like I said at the beginning, if James Cameron’s name had popped up under the Director credit…I would not have been shocked or surprised at all. So visually, this worked for me.
I don’t imagine that this one had the HUGEST budget in the world, but what they did have, was clearly put onscreen. The props and costumes were awesome and realistic, the action scenes look slick and were shot and edited with competence and style, the CG was mostly pretty good and would’ve probably worked well in 3D, had this one been given the chance in the theatre, as originally planned. So visually, all aspects came together for me.
The cast was pretty good too. I like everything I’ve seen of James Badge Dale, from HBO’s superb ‘The Pacific’ (2010) up to Michael Bay’s surprisingly OK ’13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi’ (2016). He has charisma and seems to approach his characters with determined conviction. While the character was admittedly a little ‘thin’, he made what he had to work with work for the story. We also get fellow Canadian Bruce Greenwood (‘Star Trek’), as the Commanding Officer of the military forces in the area, ‘General Orland’, whose men are being struck down by this unknown force. We also get Emily Mortimer (‘Shutter Island’) as a foil for the ‘Clyne’ character, a somewhat shadowy researcher named ‘Fran Madison’ (who manages to keep shit platonic!!). We even get Stephen Root (‘Office Space’) in an unexpected blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo. The rest of the crew, among which are faces you’ll probably recognize, did a good job making the military aspects seem somewhat believable and organic, something that it seems the script set out to achieve from the get-go. It was cool that the writers made the effort to give the dialogue and actions of the military characters some sense of reality, as it really did make this feel like a ‘Black Hawk Down’-type of movie…where weird, maybe supernatural-type shit suddenly pops up to fuck up everyone’s day. Even when it does go down like that, the characters stay ‘military’, which I appreciated.
As I pointed out earlier, I was looking for obvious, glaring flaws in the movie that would’ve made sense for Universal to loose faith over…but I honestly didn’t find any. Thinking back, some of the 1st Act could’ve been sped up, as a fair bit of time is dedicated to characters sitting around giving us expository information. It’s all really nicely shot and edited…but it does take a little longer than it needed to, to get to the point. Some of the overall pacing could’ve been tweaked or tightened too. It ALMOST felt like the 3rd Act was actually a tacked-on, extended epilogue, but I settled into it and it worked out surprisingly well. Just some of the narrative connections were a little muddled. There were also a couple ‘preparing for battle’ montages where what the troops were accomplishing really would’ve taken a LOT longer than we’re led to believe they had in time to spare…but that also supports some of the pacing issues, as the passage of time in some sequences was a little vague and clumsy.
All in all, ‘Spectral’ was a really pleasant surprise for me, on a cold and snowy Friday night. As a serious James Cameron fan, I was tickled pink by the effort that clearly went into crafting this one to look and feel like ‘Aliens’. Hell, the narrative also shared some definite similarities to that 1986 classic. Some people could see that as cheap or lazy, but the style was imitated so nicely that I HAD to overlook any other perspectives about it and just sit back and enjoy what I was watching. The matching ‘beats’ in the script also just reinforced the resonating effect that THAT film STILL has today, some 34 years later. This one WANTED to be ‘classic’ Cameron…and does a good job getting close. If films like ‘Aliens’, ‘Black Hawk Down’, and ‘Predator’ work for you, this one should do the trick. I would’ve appreciated a bit more ‘teeth’ and gore from the violence, but when the truth of what the characters are dealing with becomes clear, the manner of action and deaths make sense. The CG is cool, the music score by Junkie XL (‘Mad Max: Fury Road’) was sweet, the action worked, the characters, as played by accomplished actors, gave me what I needed, and the flick and premise didn’t outstay their welcome. I’m still blown away by Universal’s weak, dismissive treatment of this surprisingly decent thriller. I’m reminded of another Bruce Greenwood genre entry that got the same disgraceful and unfair bum rush from it’s original production house, and that was 2002’s WW2 haunted submarine flick ‘Below’ (another I wholeheartedly recommend). Like ‘Below’, I think that ‘Spectral’ is something of an underrated and entirely serviceable science fiction thriller / hidden gem that got stuck well below the radar and deserves to be seen, as it’s clear that a lot of hard work went into it’s creation. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. Is it a solid science fiction / action thriller that won’t waste your time if you give it a shot on Netflix? Very much so. It would’ve been cool to see at the theatre…but if Netflix wanted to save this one from obscurity (or outright non-existence) and gift it upon us nerdy cinephiles and casual movie watchers alike, then I’ll happily take it just like that…and you should too.

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